Right There in Black & White

Memories of an ex-munchkin among young women and summer breezes, by L. E. Taylor 

The diversions of television and Internet notwithstanding, we who have more life in the rearview mirror than through the windshield often find ourselves drifting off the road and into the past.

Recently, I found myself stock still in the living room with a glass of merlot in one hand and the TV remote in the other. Then I was gone.

The year was 1942. It was summer at my old Auntie Kane’s house on the Canadian shore of Lake St. Clair. I’d been sent across the river and into this bucolic yesteryear by my parents to protect me from the annual hot weather curse of cities: polio. Infantile paralysis, it was called, and it loomed over every household, in every neighborhood.

My Auntie (actually, my “great aunt,” my Grandma’s sister) was a widow whose only asset was a two story summer home built in 1912 by her late husband Will, a nineteenth century British emigrant, speedboat whiskey runner, illegal Detroit saloon proprietor, real estate speculator, and family character. Because the Kane’s had lost it all, as the saying goes, in the 1929-30 Crash, Minnie Kane was dependent for income upon a parade of family members and friends from the old days, and the pals they brought along for weekends in the cooling breezes off the blue lake.

That first year, 1942, was a test to see if I could handle June, July, and most of August on the lakeshore and permanently away from my mother and father, my baby brother, and my neighborhood chums (I could). Also, they needed to see if they could handle it (they could, too). So, summers during the War came to mean Canada for me. Not only did I meet a lot of interesting adults of all types and humours, but also (young men being away on urgent business, in uniform), a good portion of these folks were women. Young women.

Now I was only eight when the parade began, but as summers advanced, so did my curiosity about adult ways. I learned a lot. When the adults were relaxed on holiday at Auntie’s, they spoke freely among themselves – about politics, business, sports, sex. Well, the man-woman thing didn’t have a word connected to it then, but the phenomenon was present, always. My parents and their circles of couples would play gin rummy or poker indoors or Indian dice out on a sunny blanket; the men would go golfing; everyone swam in the sandy shallows of the clear lake; meals were always uproariously entertaining and the humor was always ironic and irreverent and full of salty information for the only kid there.

And he was certainly there. Always right there, not missing a syllable or a nuance. In fact, he wrote a book about it.

Many of the long forgotten bits of information little Larry absorbed in those four summers came from the brides and girlfriends of absent young warriors. The military men were my heroes, especially the Marines and the fliers. One of Auntie’s summer girls was married to an Air Corps pilot named Burton, which fascinated me. Her name was Pat. Then there was Mary, and Peg, and Ruth; these three only had boyfriends who were overseas. They were always gabbing, joking, and sometimes one would retreat into herself. They were all lonely. They masked the loneliness with an edgy gaiety that would come in bursts and then disappear like a summer lake squall.

And I was always there.

One day, they were talking about a movie that made a big impression. They settled into a serious conversation about it. Its title intrigued me. I asked what’s it about? Pat did a double take as though to say, “What? Are you still here?” Mary said, “It’s about a homely girl who meets a handsome man who’s engaged to a pretty woman. He goes off to war and comes back with his face all scarred up and ugly. When others are around, they are both ugly, when they’re alone in the cottage you see what they see, two beautiful people.”

Well, I never saw The Enchanted Cottage, but it did show up sixty-nine years later in my living room in Dallas Texas.

Black and white. Good movie.

Onward.

 

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Coming soon, essay: When Movies Didn’t Need Color.

 

 

 

Toy Soldiers, Innocence, and Trust.

Reflections in a jaded eye, by L. E. Taylor

The little fellow had been frail with ear infections for each of the four winters of his life. He needed to be content playing alone in the warmth of his bedroom on the rugs that covered his linoleum floor or in the small living room.

Each trip Mama made to the grocery a block away usually included a stop at the “dime store.” Back home in the warm kitchen, emptying paper sacks of bottled milk, Kellogg’s Flakes, Del Monte canned goods, and small packages string-wrapped with pink butcher paper, her attention would drift down to her son, watching patiently from a yellow enameled wooden chair.

“Did you bring me anything?” he would ask.

She always had. A small red-painted racing car with wheels that spun. A tiny Ford truck. A cowboy with white furry chaps on horseback, swinging a copper wire lariat. A funny book. Or, best surprise of all, a toy lead soldier, marching, aiming, crouching. These trinkets were not large by later, post-war, standards; but they were just right for her little son, the only child so far in all the family; sickly, sunny by nature, and utterly puzzling to his young mother.

In a short time, the boy had acquired a variegated collection of such toys. He kept them loose in a four quart peach basket made of thin sheets of pale wood with a single wooden strap handle, the kind used in those days by farmers and produce markets for tomatoes and apples and of course peaches. Intermittently, each day he would take out his basket of “soldiers” and create make-believe. There had been no wars; he’d seen no movies. Television wasn’t even a word. He didn’t know it, but he was manipulating the tiny men and vehicles to make up stories.

Presently, in that city where springtime is cold, Mama would bundle him up with ear muffs and galoshes and mittens, and send him out to play in the rare sunlight. He’d take his basket of soldiers, hunker down on the porch or the sidewalk, and the new story would begin.

Before long, his solitary activity attracted attention. First, one boy from nowhere stopped by to help him play. The truck noises were fun for boys to imitate. He would divide up the miniature players and their vehicles, cannons, and horses, and the two boys would improvise the action.

In no time, there were other boys. Three or four, all older. And bigger. When Mama would come to the door and say, “Time to come in,” they would put the soldiers and cars and trucks back into the basket, and the little boy would scamper up the steps and inside.

By summer, the boy realized that he had fewer soldiers. Where is the Ford truck? The horse was missing its rider.

Mama explained to him about people. He did not understand. Later when he’d go outside to play, he told the boys they couldn’t play with his soldiers any more

They called him selfish.

Onward.

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L. E. Taylor

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A Boyhood in Detroit

Remembrance; Commentary – by L.E.Taylor, author of Elgan and Grace

In the Eastside neighborhood where I grew up there was an understanding among families: When the streetlights come on, the boys go home. Enforcement was the job of parents; no-nonsense reminders by adults on street corners were not uncommon.

Within a couple of generations after the new century dawned, Detroit had drawn a flood of laborers from farms and mines in the South, from Canada across the river, and from afflicted peoples beyond our shores. Quickly, the town became a city of homeowners. (By mid-century, at well over 70%, it had far and away the highest per capita home ownership of American cities.) For most, the homes were their first, mortgaged on the strength of dependable employment in the planet’s greatest industrial metropolis.

Inside the homes that comprised each neighborhood lived a family. A tiny nuclear corporation, headed by a father and a mother. Their property was precious beyond its financial worth. Continue reading