Life in the Attic

Blatant nostalgia by L. E. Taylor

The new house was built to my father’s specifications in 1939.

It was unique. An architect modified the Cape Cod style to suit an idea that the upwardly mobile ex-coal miner had got somewhere, or just got out of the blue. It had two bedrooms, a basement, an unfinished small attic upstairs, a garage in the back yard, and a swath out front for a nice lawn. It didn’t look like any other house on Harvard Road.

That was the idea.

By 1942, the attic had been remodeled into a double bedroom with a commode and shower just at the top of the stairs. In retrospect, it was a young lad’s dream. Knotty pine paneling; two built-in desks with book shelves, separated by two large sash windows and a window seat beneath. The window seat disguised a storage bin, beneath a long hinged lid, perfect for baseball mitts, bats, and lots of “junk.” The floor was hardwood. There were a couple of rag rugs, one between the twin beds, and one at the foot.

But the first born son, only five when his brother was born, now nearly eight, felt exiled. Isolated and, in the popular term of the day, “blue,” he was uncomfortably remote from his former world: Downstairs. Seated at his desk on a sturdy red plastic-padded aluminum chair, the boy’s feet dangled inches above the floor. An expatriate, gloomily idle in his Elba. But not for long.

With walls on either side of the sloping roof, the bedroom only occupied the center section of the attic. Twin beds backed up to the east paneled wall. The west wall appeared exactly the same, but at its center, invisible to the eye, was a removable unit of four knotty pine panels, floor to ceiling, cunningly disguised to blend with the rest.

One day, when the boy was eleven, he discovered that he was tall enough and strong enough, to remove the secret panel and slide it aside. Simply a boy’s curiosity, nothing more. Once inside, he found this “storage room” was unheated, insulated from the winter only by some sort of padding that looked like flat chunks of pink cotton candy, stuffed into the spaces between roof struts. Arranged throughout this inner sanctum were the remnants of his mother’s past, trucked from her own childhood home one sad moving day when the old German neighborhood had become unlivable for her aging mother.

The room was unfinished and dark. Dark. Quiet. And oddly peaceful. A narrow spill of light from the opening where the panel had been moved aside allowed for exploration.

Clothing hung shrouded on a line; a tiny lacquered crib made by “Papa” for a first baby, stillborn nearly a half century before, a cedar chest with old costumes, woolens, boots, and a few albums was easily opened to a forgotten past, redolent of mothballs and mystery.

And there were magazines. Stacks next to stacks of Life magazines…. Years upon years of every weekly issue of Life magazine ever printed.

He sat down upon the raw pine floor. He took a quilt from the chest and a pillow from his bed and made a nest for himself, an Indian camp where he could retreat, back against the chest, legs akimbo, and read the magazines.

Life was an icon of the times. It arrived in the mail every Friday for as far back as the boy could recall, well before he could read, or even cared to. Except for the photographs. The slogan proclaimed Life to be “the world in pictures,” and indeed it was. Here in photos was the entire history of the War, and the troubled years that led up to it. And there was more. Famous people – Hollywood stars, great men whose voices he’d heard on the radio, far distant places in Europe and Asia, the polar explorations, the giant auto plants, the silver airplanes that were now shrinking the world. There were writers and musicians, gangsters and lawmen, builders and laborers on the job and scientists in their labs and old-looking leaders posing importantly in their uniforms and uncomfortable-looking double breasted suits.

Advertising touted every brand of cigarette on the sculpted lips of handsome men, soft drinks in the hands of pretty girls and Santa Claus, Campbell’s Soup, Wheaties, and every kind of car from DeSotos and Studebakers to Hudsons, Packards and with the war over, the new Jeepsters in your choice of yellow or maroon.

This became his secret place. Lit at first by smuggled candles. Then, to allow for more comfortable study of the magazines, a single small table lamp of rustic wood and brass with backlit images of the Lone Ranger on its yellowing shade.

After school, with a glass of red pop, he’d mount the stairs to his room. He found it ever easier to remove the pine panel, prop it up just enough to slip into the dark interior, click on the lamp, and from within, slide the panel to near closure. Then, away from the turmoil of advancing puberty in an unfriendly world, he would study the photos and read carefully every word by some of the best writers anywhere.

Time brought near manhood and he was off to a summer job, and then on to college. The images of Life’s black and white photographs, nearly twenty years of them, helped to set his mind’s stage for the new images and more demanding prose he was about to encounter.

A lifetime later, in another place, with another less romantic view of the society of men, one day he wondered what had become of those decades of Life magazines, delivered by mail each Friday at ten cents apiece.

Then he knew. His mother had thrown them out along with all the rest of the junk of life gone by. While he was away at college, the family moved far away from Harvard Road, to another new house, a new life.

Everything would be new. But not as good.

Onward.

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References.

Note to reader: It’s customary to provide a table of source material to for further study. However, all research for this article was done between 1940 and 1952; in an attic. I’m handing it off to you now. Here are a few “key word” suggestions:

Winston Churchill, FDR, Harry S Truman, Tom Dewey, Hitler, Stalin, Spanish Civil War, Margaret Bourke White, Communists, Nazis, Battle of Berlin, Pearl Harbor, Detroit war plants, Rosie the Riveter, Sherman tanks, Flying Tigers, Willow Run, Ernie Pyle, William L. Shirer, Claire Booth Luce, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra, Erroll Flynn, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Battle of the Bulge, George Patton, Battle of Britain, RAF, Spitfires, P51 Mustangs, Gone With the Wind, Clark Gable, Bobbie sox, Tom Harmon of Michigan, Battle of the Rouge Overpass, UAW, Teamsters, Levittown, Dunkirk, Monty at Tobruk, D-Day, Invasion of Sicily, Berlin Airlift, Kefauver Hearings, Frank Costello, Mafia, Al Capone, Rum running, speedboats, Chris Craft of Algonac, Gold Cup Races, Detroit race riots, Jackie Robinson, Joe Di Maggio, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, Augie Bergamo, Stan Musial, Marylin Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Bataan, Corregidor, Death March, Rape of Nanking, VE Day, Midway, Iwo Jima, VJ Day, Nuremburg War Crimes, atrocities, concentration camps, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Bikini H-Bomb, the New Look, Stalin Purges, Cardinal Minzenti, brain washing, the Red Scare, Joe McCarthy, Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, I Like Ike…

Old School – Part Two: Education on the Rocks.

Reflections on Books and Barbarians by L. E. Taylor

Words mean things.

Words are fragments of thought that can work magic: kindness, wisdom, friendly persuasion.

With care, we can combine words into thoughtful questions and seek the truth we need to navigate our lives. But when the answers we receive are perverted by wrong words, either maliciously to deceive us, or baffling to us for want of schooling, we may find ourselves adrift on a dark sea of ignorance and error, and end up either on the rocks or grounded in the swampy muck of some hostile shore.

Education is a lifelong quest for the light that will guide us safely from port to port.

Young Plato tells us this is how old Socrates ran his classes. So for a couple of thousand years it’s been known as the Socratic Method, a way of accumulating smarts based upon seeking answers to questions. That’s what makes it a quest.

Each month I receive a publication called Imprimis, a six-page reprint of one or two public addresses or formal class lectures sponsored by Hillsdale College. The January 2014 issue is on my desk as I write this. Its content is excerpted from remarks delivered last October by the college president, Larry P. Arnn, titled “A Rebirth of Liberty and Learning”.

Dr. Arnn contrasts the assumptions of traditional Western education with the current American establishment’s rejection of the Socratic style in favor of a quicker, less disciplined fix. Dr. Arnn says,

There is a proper way to educate and there is a proper way to govern, and they are both known. Today we do these things in a different way, which presents a serious and perhaps fatal problem for our country…

The word “education” comes from a Latin word meaning “to lead forth.” And if you think about it, “forth” is a value-laden term. Which way is forth? The Bible tells us to “raise up a child in the way he should go.” But which way should he go? How does one come to know the answer to that? After almost 14 years as a college president I’m an expert on young people between 18 and 22, and I can tell you that if you ask a young person today which way is the right way to go, more often than not he or she will answer: “It depends on which way you want to go.” Young people today give that answer because they’ve been taught to give that answer. But it’s the wrong answer, and the activity of getting from there to the right answer—the activity of coming to know which way is the right way—is education. Thus “to lead forth…”  - Dr. Larry Arnn, October 9th 2013

Western thought is generously recorded in books full of English words. These are answers to questions. Your questions.

People who reject the recorded history of our culture in favor of their own shallow answers to their own narcissistic questions are the new generation of Barbarians.

In our last essay, Old School – Part One, I recalled my public high school years, learning at the knee of the taskmaster, Mr. Rosecrance. His faux harshness, replete with personal japes upon one’s self esteem, made him a stock villain – he even resembled the old B-movie scoundrel, Basil Rathbone.

But the great majority of his students, though dreading his caustic wit, respected the value of his results. Many of us remember those encounters as the boot camp that informed our worldview.

His snide bluster was a caricature, an act so good that no one caught on. He kept students at a distance, always off balance, goading them to try harder with each paper to achieve the impossible: a glimmer of approval from their Zen master, Old Man Rosecrance.

Years later, as a young father of two young kids, with two college degrees in a drawer somewhere and a demanding business to conjure with, my high school days were well behind and out of mind. Then one day word got to me; a young thug had accosted the old scholar in the hallway outside his classroom. With one cowardly sucker punch an era ended. The assault was symbolic of a culture change, fed by the very ignorance and sloth that was beginning to rip the beating heart from the breast of a once great City.

The fact remains, gentle reader, that a generation of young people from the East Side of Detroit made it to college, or chose another productive path, better equipped than they might have been but for the dogged perseverance of Jackson Lancelot Rosecrance.

And, of course, Old Socrates.

Onward.

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References:

  1. Plato, The Republic
  2. Imprimis, www.hillsdale.edu.

Old School, Part One: I Remember Rosecrance

High School ’53 – The Way We Were, a remembrance by L. E. Taylor

“English is the most beautiful language God ever invented.” Al Neugebauer smiled and settled back comfortably into his big executive chair. “Listening to you speak is like listening to music.”

Years earlier, as a teenager, Al had escaped Eastern Europe. He’d known German, Russian, and a little French. His accented English came just before his American citizenship. And his lucrative travel business came after that.

The young adman across the desk from Al came by his own language skills less dramatically, but arguably with more stress.

I was a senior at Edwin Denby High School in December of 1952. My curriculum was “College Prep.” It meant something decades ago. We were being prepared for a course of study elevated above, and far more demanding than anything we had known. Only in my senior year had I come to understand that the world didn’t give a crap about me, and I’d better get focused.

I trundled to school each morning by public transportation before daybreak, dressed with care in a V-neck sweater, pressed grey flannel slacks, a button-down white shirt, and a tightly knotted knit tie. The finishing touch was often a scrupulously chalked pair of Pat Boone-style white bucks.

My English instructor was an eccentric martinet of the British “public” school model. A gangly, craggy, bespectacled, gray-faced Ichabod Crane, he dominated his stage, hectoring each wretch in his thirty-student classes, assuring them that his criticism was not general, but decidedly personal. He expected, each day, in each assignment, not perfection, but resounding excellence. He awarded no “A’s”.

On my first day of class at fifteen, he’d strode the aisles reading from each yellowed enrollment card and drilling each new victim with raven’s eyes. He stopped next to me. “LA-ree,” he said.

Yes, sir.

“Your name is Lawrence.” I told him my given name is Larry.

“Nonsense,” he sneered, “Suppose some mommy and daddy gazed upon their new babe and said, ‘Oh, ain’t he just darling! Let’s call him Herbie!’ Who’d want to go through life with Herrr-bie?!”

For the time being, my name would be Lawrence.

This was my introduction to Jackson Lancelot Rosecrance, Terror of the College Prep English faculty.

The whole name issue was moot; Mr. Rosecrance never used our Christian names anyway – only, in the custom of private prep schools, our surnames. One day in my senior year, he paused at my desk. “My, Mister Taylor, aren’t you the picture of sartorial splendor! Blazer… tie. May I see your socks?” I hiked up a creased slack-leg revealing a green and orange argyle. “Ahhh! I needn’t have asked. I could have heard them,” he hooted. Everyone laughed, not least of all, myself.

Mr. Rosecrance had few fans among the plebian student body. I was one of that few who got it. I enjoyed the sparring. I loved his droll way with words. And I was learning. Of course, I squirmed as he skewered classmates and I tolerated his belittling my own peccadilloes. But I knew what was going on. It wasn’t bloody-minded vitriol. This was just his act, albeit a persuasive one. He used it to force the main issue: Wake up, sluggard! You are better than the mess you are allowing yourself to drift into!

The Rosecrance method was unorthodox. He taught writing as a collateral skill to learning from great literature. Not a secondary side issue, writing was a synchronous part of in-depth English literature studies, at least in this public school room.

Appreciation of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Elizabethan poetry was interwoven with stringent exercises in vocabulary, syntax, and pellucid prose writing, even penmanship. Each Monday, in class, we were to write an extemporaneous precis (pray’-seez), a short 10-minute essay, and turn it in. The week’s precis, would be graded, 1-10.

As oral book-based classwork proceeded, led by students with the two highest scores of the previous week, Mr. R planted himself in the back of the room, crammed into the desk at the window corner. From this command post, he multi-tasked: monitoring and elucidating (in real time) the class doings, while summoning each student in turn, to come sit across the aisle from him and take his/her medicine, “one-to-ten”.

Once, I recall, he berated an athlete, a handsome blond track star and a letterman on our very good football team. “Trackman!” he barked, scowling at a slip of copybook paper. “Mister Betzer, there is no such word as ‘trackman’.” The lad’s reply was an embarrassed mumble. “Mr. Betzer, you are better than this… I think. Do not be misled by the fame of Dick Panin at Michigan State. He is said to have been a student here. He was NOT a student; he ATTENDED CLASSES here. And got away with it. You had the same amount of time on Monday as your classmates; you came up with this fiasco of eleven words, and … ‘trackman.’ Your grade for the week is zero.”

Okay, enough of the caricature. Mr. Rosecrance was more than the sadistic drill sergeant he portrayed; he was a serious, gifted teacher of the English literary canon. He introduced me to the dysfunctional Macbeths and other figments of Elizabethan imagination – Bacon, Marlow, Spenser, the Sonnets, and quaint oddities that would come to mean more very shortly on a faraway campus.

How do I remember these things? I guess they made an impression. And I remember one other moment, which is the counterpoint of this tale.

It was the last day before Christmas break. A cold, bleak morning outside. I was making my way around back of the room before class. Mr. Rosecrance had got up from his nesting place at the last desk by the window and walked toward me. The passage was narrow. I stood aside to make way for him. Suddenly, with theatrical clumsiness, he stomped his dull black brogans upon my white bucks. He grabbed my shoulders and, with moist eyes, he whispered straight into my face, “Thank you for the Christmas card, Larry. That was damned nice of you.”

His breath was awful. But what startled me was, “… Larry”.

Dedicated to Al Neugebauer, wherever you are.

Onward.

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Next time: Old School, Part Two – Education on the Rocks

 

Lighthouses in the Ice

More musings about the weather in my brain, by L. E. Taylor

A couple of months ago, I was moved to write about the changing seasons in my native state and how it affected my worldview.

Born in February, in the first half of the last century, my first bundled exit from St. Mary’s Hospital in the arms of my Grandma Helena, was not into a warm sedan beneath some covered, radiant-heated portcullis, but through a snow squall down a long expanse of stone steps to the curb.

It was not a hardship. Not for Helena, nor for my mother Grace. Nor for my father Elgan, a native southerner. And certainly not for me, who was their principal object of care. In the northern maritime states, as in the prairies and mountains, Up North is not somewhere else, it is home. However the cold might register on the thermometer, it could always be colder, and would certainly in time, be much warmer.

No big deal. Just the cavalcade of life

I was reminded of this fact as I watched a couple of televised events last week: the National Hockey League Winter Classic with the Toronto Maple Leafs playing the Detroit Red Wings outdoors, and the Forty-Niners-Packers game played at Green Bay Wisconsin. Both games were played in sub-zero temperatures, before full stadiums of 105,000 (Michigan Stadium), and 80,000 (Lambeau Field) respectively. The Michigan venue provided a constant blizzard that required frequent shoveling by cadres of snowmen on skates.

The weather was a hindrance to the players and a source of acute discomfort to the spectators. Commentators kept talking about it. Everyone loved the adventure. People who cherished their warmth above all things, of course, were not there.

An hour or so ago, a friend of mine sent me a collection of photos of a lighthouse festooned with layers of wind-sculpted January ice.* You can see more of these images by clicking here.

frozen-lighthouse-st-joseph-north-pier-lake-michigan-9

The beacon stands at the end of a pier in southern Lake Michigan. It is one of one-hundred-fifteen on the coastline of the State of Michigan, home to the most coastal lighthouses of any U. S. state or Canadian province. (Click here to see more Michigan lighthouses.) 

Spring, summer, and fall, these lighthouses guide mariners through the inland seas that form our state. For a century and a half they have provided light in the shrieking green scud of angry storms and the foggy blackness of starless nights.

That’s how they got their name, they are houses of light.

Cloaked in ice, with no ships to warn… they sleep.

Stay warm. Stay alert. The lights will come on in the spring.

Happy New Year.

Onward.

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*The image above is credited to Tom Gill. For more of his images, you can visit his page here.