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…

Water the Flowers, Not the Weeds.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was hurting. Younger than I by a dozen years, he appeared to be older. “Davey” (not his real name) was nearly crippled by diabetes and its side effects. I made it a point to visit him at least five days a week to go for a drive or to get groceries, to sit in the park and talk about baseball, politics, or nothing. I would call Davey around noon to ask if his afternoon was free. Deeply depressed by his infirmities and by his loneliness and by his apparent failure to ‘get a break,’ Davey would reply with the same lament, “I’ve got no place to go and no way to get there.”

He was also broke.

One day he told me he’d made a list of all his damages as a way of determining the size of the mountain he must climb.

That seemed a poor investment of time and effort. But I’ve learned that sermonizing from a lofty position of apparent stability serves little benefit for one afflicted with misfortune, nor does it help a friendship. So I’d just listen and nod. Continue reading

Practice, Man.

Opinion: By L.E. Taylor 

There’s an old joke that has an out-of-towner stopping a fellow carrying a fiddle case on 6th Avenue, and asking, “Uh, pardon me. Can you tell me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

The guy answers, “Practice, man. Practice.”

The advice is not merely colloquial. Nor even artistic. It is universal for all of us – professional, amateur, and plebeian. If we seek to enjoy life in full, we must expose ourselves relentlessly to what’s been accomplished by the doers – to standards of excellence, and ultimately, courageously, to our own flawed selves as works-in-progress.

The point is not only to humbly acknowledge our momentary limitations, but also to reveal our unexplored potential.

Decades ago, I read an autobiography by Charlton Heston, An Actor’s Life. It was based upon a diary he’d kept over his first twenty years in Hollywood. Among many lessons I took from the book was a simple truism, “The more we do a thing, the better we get at it.” Heston also remarked upon how “easy” he had been on himself in his shortcomings, and how he would change that, given the chance.

About the same time in my young manhood, I was preparing to travel to New York City to consider moving into a life of what would be called, these many years later, the “Mad Men.” Translation: 1960s Madison Avenue and all the sin-and-sizzle it implied. Before leaving the Midwest, I was given words of advice by an experienced advertising CEO from my home state. He said: “Don’t sell yourself short; you are better than most of the people they see; remember, talent recognizes talent.”

Then he said, almost to himself, “What’s ‘good’ may be subjective, but there’s a common thread: Taste is educated perception.”

I can’t remember the man’s name, but I didn’t have to look up his admonition; it was seared into my brain before the waiter brought the luncheon check.

I’ve poured thousands of hours into feeding my ‘perception’. Now four decades later, my worldview is seasoned by experience in combat. Bloodless corporate combat, certainly, not the heroic D-Day kind. But in its time-and-place, it was urgent mundane struggle, nonetheless. We who strive know about exposing oneself to failure. Whether it’s playing the piano, or playing rugby; or hitting a curve ball, or raising a heifer and a crop of corn to feed her, you won’t fully appreciate it unless you’ve tried to do it.

The same is true of writing. Except for one caveat: when you sound a sour piano chord or fan on a fastball, the evidence is there for all to see and you’re the goat. But with a lousy page of writing, you can get away with it unless someone who knows better is there to read it and to tell you it stinks.

So practice, kid. Practice. And don’t take it easy on yourself, just work.

Onward.

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