When I was three in 1935, after spending the summer in Gull Lake, we moved to Battle Creek, MI.
When we first moved, we rented rooms at the Kellogg Inn for several months until my father bought a house — a rundown wooden home on North Avenue that the bank he bought it from had probably foreclosed on, so I’m sure he got a good deal on it.
My father was a superb carpenter, and he renovated the house himself. I didn’t get the carpenter gene, but passed it on to my sons Perry, and, especially, to Chris and Colin.
My father started by tearing off a rickety three-story back porch, saving all the wood and storing it above the rafters in the garage in back of the house – a garage that you entered from the alley behind the house. The house had been painted a light tan at one time, but it was dirty, faded and peeling. My father used a blow torch to strip off the old paint. It was a nasty, blisteringly hot job.
I remember seeing him high on a ladder working with the blow torch and a big metal scraper. He wouldn’t let me near the blow torch or the ladder. After all, I was an only child he wasn’t taking any chances, especially after I almost burned down the Gull Lake cottage.
North Avenue was a main street in Battle Creek. Behind the house was an alley, and behind that was College Street. The back yard went maybe 50 feet back to the alley and had a small hill in the middle that sloped down about three feet to the alley. In the lower right-hand corner of the back yard there was a clump of bushes and saplings that rose about 15 feet, as I remember.
The Fort and Hiram Coleman
My father built a fort in the bushes for me and my pals out of the wood from the torn-down back porch. The first floor of the fort was about six or eight feet square and about six feet high. There was a ladder that led to a trap door that we could open with a pulley and rope and that led to the roof on which there was a railing about four feet high. On the lower right corner of the roof was a flag pole with a pulley and rope by which we could raise and lower a flag – a scull and crossbones pirate flag my mother had made for us.
For six years my pals and I played in that fort almost every day. It was our fort, our clubhouse, our pirate ship and our Viking long boat. Years later, when I lived in Columbia, MO, and was married to Sandie, I tried to replicate the fort on the back of a car shed we had built behind our house. I remember going into it once when I was in my early 60s, looking around wistfully and weeping a little because it wasn’t a perfect replica and Bobby and David and Pete and Ron and Buddy weren’t there. As Thomas Wolfe wrote, “you can’t go home again,” but I’ve never learned that lesson.
Hiram Coleman lived in a big white house across the alley on College Street directly behind the fort. Hiram was four or five years older than I was and was a budding inventor.
On the left side of his house there was a driveway that went back to a garage. To the left of the driveway there was a large, tall oak tree in which Hiram built an elaborate tree house with real windows. To get up to the tree house, he built a lift that consisted of a board wedged in a large rope, like a swing. The rope was attached to a motor in the tree house so that when you turned on the motor, the swing seat would go up through an opening in the floor of a porch-type ledge with a railing that jutted out from the main tree house.
We called it an elevator and thought it was the coolest thing in the whole world. Hiram was a god to us, and the biggest treat we could conceive of was being invited up to the tree house and taking the elevator up to kid heaven.
Hiram also built a bridge out of heavy rope and wooden slats that ran from the tree house across the driveway and into his room in his house. From our kitchen we could see Hiram and his pals walking across the waving bridge. Watching from the distance of our kitchen, we couldn’t really see the supporting ropes, so it looked like Hiram was walking on air, which, of course, we absolutely believed he could do.
Hiram had small brass cannon like the ones used by yacht clubs to start races and that was mounted on the rear window of his tree house. He would sometimes shoot marbles at us in the fort. The “whap,” “whap” of the marbles on the outer walls of the fort sounded like a real war to us, and we loved it. The Marble Wars only lasted a few weeks, as I remember, because I think Mrs. Coleman, stopped Hiram, to our great disappointment.
In the spring of 1941, when I was nine, my mother and father got a call from Dr. Coleman, Hiram’s father, who was a medical doctor, to come over to his house because they had some bad news. We were told that Hiram was making a small bomb (as 15-year-old boys are apt to do), and as he was arming it with a battery, it exploded and killed him.
It was the first time I had dealt with death. I had no idea what to do or how to act. Dr. Coleman offered me Hiram’s motor that operated the tree house elevator, but I said “no thank you.” When we got home, my father gently told me that I should have accepted the motor because it would have been polite to accept the gift as a token of Hiram’s friendship.
I hadn’t realized that Hiram liked me, that liking someone went two ways. You worship the gods and it never occurs to you that they might like you or care about you, too.
After my father told me this, I cried, not because I didn’t get the motor or because I thought I had disappointed my father but because I realized that I wouldn’t be seeing Hiram again. I remember crying hard and father holding me. I don’t remember him ever holding me any other time. But he was there when I needed him, and he would be there for me often, especially when I was 18. But that’s another story.
My experiences in Battle Creek when I was between the ages of 4 and 10 embedded patterns I was unconscious of until I began writing about them.
Now I understand why I had to write about myself – I needed to know who I am.
I went to Freemont School on East Emmett Street. Each morning I’d walk two blocks north on North Avenue, past Latta and Woolnough Streets, turn right and walk two blocks east up to school. My best pals at school were Bobby Baker, David King, Pete Shaw, Ron Harbert, and Buddy Gage.
Bobby Baker lived across the street on North Avenue, and I played with him every day, which in kids’ time that means literally every day. Bobby lived with his grandmother because his mother were father were divorced, which was scandalous in those days. David lived on Capital Avenue NE in a big English Tutor house (his family owned the local feed store and were rich). Pete Shaw has lots of brothers and cousins, and his family owned the biggest local funeral parlor. Ron Harbert lived on Freemont Street and he had a pretty older sister (his father sold insurance to everyone we knew). Buddy Gage’s father owned a stationary store and printing business, and visiting the print shop was really cool.
And whatever we did, we did on bikes. I got a Schwinn Classic Cruiser when I was eight, and it was the best present I ever, ever, ever got.
When Bobby and David and Pete and Ron and Buddy and I would play, we’d play with wooden guns and wooden pirate swords my father made in his basement workshop. We’d play in the fort and shoot at Hiram Coleman and his older pals.
But I had some other friends, too – Ann Jones and Mary Elizabeth Snyder.
Ann was the smartest girl and person in our class(es), and she talked with a slight lisp that made her drool at times. Mary Elizabeth Snyder was the second smartest girl and person in our class, and she was the only girl in the class who wore glasses. I don’t remember the circumstances surrounding Ann and Mary Elizabeth coming over to play, but they did. The fact that I couldn’t remember is probably telling, because it means that at the time and thereafter I didn’t think it was a big deal or deviant or strange that I played with girls. It just seemed natural.
Perhaps I didn’t think playing with girls was deviant because my mother had three sisters and my father had two sisters, and my closest relatives, who I played with most often, were, of course, Sal and my father’s younger sister’s daughter, Marianne Graham (three years older). Also, when I was ill with scarlet fever and was out of school for several weeks, my parents gave me a giant stuffed panda to play with, and my mother, who was an excellent seamstress (Gramma Dean had seen to that) , made clothes for my panda. She made overalls out of bed ticking so that they looked like Oshkosh overalls. I think Ann and Mary Elizabeth liked playing with and dressing the panda, which, naturally, I called Panda because it was most like Pooh in mind.
My first semi-sexual encounter was with Ann and Mary Elizabeth – doing a triple at age nine was awesome, and it was my first and only threesome. We were playing in the top of the garage where my father had stored the lumber from the back porch he’d torn down. Because it was away from the house and no one could see us or approach suddenly without us knowing, it was the right time to explore.
I remember saying, “I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours.” The details are fuzzy 70 years later, but I think Mary Elizabeth said “no,” but Ann was willing. She nodded her head, so I pulled down my pants and thrust out my little circumcised wiener (that’s what I called it then, before it became my best friend). Ann pulled up her dress and took off her cotton panties.
We looked at each others’ genitals with rapt curiosity, but I don’t remember laughing or being nervous or being revolted; just curious. But I do remember being somewhat disappointed because there was nothing there but a slit – nothing special, nothing interesting to see. So, we pulled up our pants and continued playing whatever game the four of us were playing — Panda, of course, was there, too, and was incuriously but fully involved in the game we were playing. Panda didn’t care much about what was going on because Panda was an it – it didn’t have a wiener or a slit, just several bed ticking outfits.
Looking back, I suppose that what I get from this memory was that I was completely comfortable with girls and women. They weren’t different, exotic creatures. They weren’t people to be afraid of or uncomfortable around; they were good pals and warm, cuddly people who played with you, loved you, and took care of you. And girls your age were fun and if you showed them yours, they showed you theirs.
“What About Art”
In third grade, my favorite class was Art. he guys, especially David King, and I would spend all the time in Art class drawing airplanes – the fighter planes of the pre-World War II era. And every fighter plane we drew had —– (dashes) flaring off the wings indicating bullets. You couldn’t draw an airplane without bullets; it was inconceivable.
I fell off the top of the fort in the back yard and broke my right wrist in the fall of that year. I had a cast on my arm, and I remember showing it to David King and saying delightedly how neat it was that I had a cast and couldn’t do any writing in school (a real chore) or any homework. I remember David saying, in his scratchy alto voice, “But what about Art?” with a horrified expression on his face.
As my mother often told the story, when the realization of this disaster sunk in, I sunk down and tears came to my eyes. I thought I had beaten the system. I thought my broken wrist was not a problem, but an opportunity to goof off, but the realization that I could no longer do art was devastating.
Mother retold the story because she thought it was funny that my planned slothfulness had been thwarted and because of David King’s immediate and prescient response. As I think about it now, I understand how central to our lives creating our art was then and how central to our society art was and is today.
My favorite class at St. Albans (1948-1951) was Art and my favorite teacher was my Art teacher, Dean Stambaugh. Dean was not only my favorite teacher, but also Bob Alvord’s and Tyler Abell’s (two of my best friends) favorite teacher. In fact, Art as taught by Dean Stambaugh might have been the only class I liked at St. Albans; God knows it’s the only class I ever got an A in.
I loved Art. I loved doing water colors. I painted trees and mountains and colorful, dark, black-outlined castles that were subconscious, simplistic versions of artist Robert Lawson’s castles in Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand the Bull. I was pretty good and talked enthusiastically about art and becoming an artist.
My father, a practical man, was afraid that I might consider art as a career and threw away dozes of my water colors — he would have none of that impractical stuff. I think he wanted me to be a lawyer or an architect, his secret dream of a profession.
But I was drawn to the arts. Often on the weekends, from the age of 15 on, I would take public transportation downtown (we lived at 2900 Connecticut Avenue) to the National Gallery of Art and wander through the galleries. I always wound up in the 19th Century European Art galleries and would stare in awe at the Monets and Manets. My favorite was Manet’s The Dead Toreador.
I went to Dartmouth after St. Albans and was lost in girls, beer, and …well, that’s enough. I went into the Army because I knew I was lost in the fog of too much independence, rebellion and beer. After I got out of the Army, I went to Southern Illinois University for a semester and then back to Dartmouth for a semester. I realized that Dartmouth was not right for me – I thought it had no soul, no artistic soul.
I tried to transfer to Harvard, but couldn’t, so I transferred to Columbia – the Columbia School of Dramatic Arts. Art again. The pull of the arts; not painting, but of the dramatic arts – playwriting to be specific – and writing plays for television. Paddy Chayefsky was my idol.
At the School of Dramatic Arts I took courses in Promotion, Programming, and Radio Sales (the years were 1956 and 1957 and TV was just emerging). I loved the creative aspect of promotion and programming. I was hooked on the media.
I got into media sales because I had to make a living when I graduated because I was married and had a baby on the way (actually the order of the two events should be reversed). But the point is, I was irrepressibly drawn to the creative fields, to the media…to art.
When I got my first job out of college at a television station (WSPA-TV) in Spartanburg, SC, I became involved in Community Theater and had lead roles in two plays. On summer vacations and in my spare time I often painted. I even sold several paintings to friends and even had a collage in my office at CBS – it was accepted by the CBS Art Committee.
I revealed my secret ambition in 1964 when I took a personality test at the NAB Sales Management program at the Harvard Business School (sent there by WTOP Radio). It was a Thematic Aperception Test, and in one part of it I had to choose one of several achievements that I would consider the most important or make me feel the most successful. The choices were things like having a novel published, founding a company, being elected CEO of a company, and that sort of thing. One item was having s one-man show at an art gallery. I chose that one.
So, eight-year-old David King’s comment, “What about Art?” was not just about boys drawing pre-war fighters in Art class, it was about the importance of art and creativity in society and in our then and future American culture. It was also a strangely prophetic comment, because according to Richard Florida’s best-selling book, The Rise of the Creative Class, there are more workers and more jobs in creative fields than in any other type of jobs. Conceptual thinkers, creators, innovators, and artists are what are driving business growth in the 21st Century.
And one of my favorite books of the last few years is Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist in which he makes a brilliantly crafted case for the notion that art and science are not separate, but are the same field; it is just that the role of art is to explain science in emotionally resonant ways.
Therefore, the answer to David’s question, “What about Art?” is: “Art is life,” and David and I at eight knew that instinctively.
Pearl Harbor Day
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Bobby Baker and I were riding our bikes on East Emmett Street. We stopped at Freemont School and Bobby said to me, “The Japs have bombed Pearl Harbor.” I vividly remember the scene, the place, what Bobby was wearing, my Schwinn bike and that it was a cold, bright sunny morning – no clouds in the sky – but I don’t remember what my reaction was or what happened after that. The video playback in my mind stops at the point of Bobby’s announcement and loops back.
I suspect that I didn’t have any idea where Pearl Harbor was, who the Japs were, or, certainly, what the implications of the event were. But I do know how my life changed after that and what my father did that Sunday night because I’ve heard the story numerous times.
My father had an olive green Army trunk in the basement of our home in Battle Creek, and on the evening of December 7, 1941, he sent a telegram to the U.S. War Department in Washington, D.C. that read, “I have trunk that contains detailed maps of the entire telephone communication system of the Japanese Islands. Please advise.”
The next day my father got a telegram from the War Department that read, “You and your trunk get on a train to Washington today and report to the War Department” and gave the address. My father, who had been a lieutenant in the Signal Corps in World War I, got on a train with his trunk and went to Washington for the duration of the war, and mother and I followed at the beginning of school in the fall (we were in Michilinda for the summer).
In 1928 my father and mother had gone to Japan for four or five months because my father was working for the W.H. Gary Company, which held the patent to the dial telephone, and the company thought the Japanese were copying the dialing mechanism and not paying royalties. W.H. Gary Co. was located in Kansas City and my father’s job was to evaluate and try to purchase local telephone companies or, failing that, to sell them the patent to use dial telephones.
His father, Perry Warner, owned the telephone company in my father’s home town, Rossville, IL before WWI, and so my dad had grown up stringing telephone lines, repairing phones, and installing exchanges. In WWI he was in the Signal Corps, and he laid down telephone wires between the trenches – one of the most dangerous jobs in the war because the line stringers were favorite targets of German snipers.
He got a Purple Heart, but not for being shot by a sniper, but because his lungs were burnt by mustard gas. He was in a bombed-out farm house in France when the Germans hit house with a barrage of mustard gas. He used to tell the story of how he survived. He did as he had been trained to do in a mustard gas attack: He immediately dropped down on his stomach – he got as low underneath the gas, which tends to rise up, as he possibly could. He then rolled over on his side, took out his Army handkerchief, urinated on it, put it over his nose and mouth in order to keep the gas from burning up his lungs, and crawled on his stomach to an door outside. As he was crawling, he bumped into a soldier who had fallen and was unconscious. My father grabbed his comrade, rolled over on his back, and holding the unconscious soldier close to his own stomach, inched along on his back to the door and got outside. Once outside, my father dragged his comrade to a nearby trench where both were rescued.
My dad was given a Bronze Star for his bravery and was sent to the Catskills in New York State for six months rehabilitation. The mustard gas has burnt his lungs badly and burned all the hair off his body. When his grew back, his formerly straight hair was curly, which he hated and always thereafter tried various methods to keep it straight, including having his hair cut every week to keep it trim. The hair on his chest, arms, and legs never grew back, although he had a small amount of dark hair under his arms and in his genital area. Also, apparently the mustard gas acted as a carcinogen that doctors felt was the cause of his aplastic anemia, which killed him at age 56.
While he was in the Catskills, as part of his rehab, he did some basket weaving and caning. He made a floor lamp out of wooden caning material which my daughter Megan has in her living room (as of 2010).
So my father was a hero, not only to me, but a real, certified hero.
In the late 1920s he had traveled to every state in the U.S. for the W. H. Gary Co, and was an expert in telephones and networking. The company sent him to Japan to see what he could about the situation – to see if the Japanese were stealing the patent and, if so, what could be done. As part of his investigation, he had acquired detailed maps of the Japanese telephone network.
I remember the maps; they were neatly folded, wrapped in thick wax paper, and stored in the olive green trunk in our basement.
When my father went to Washington, housing was virtually impossible to find, so he rented a room from a nice couple name Levine in Arlington, on Arlington Ridge Road, as I remember. Mother and I joined him there, where we lived in slightly cramped but comfortable style. It was wartime and everyone was doing their part to help in the war effort; it was the Great Generation – sharing, sacrifice for the greater good, and patriotic cooperation.
We soon moved into a tiny row house at 733 Columbus Avenue in Alexandria in a development that had just been built to accommodate the swelling wartime population. I went to the segregated public grade school in Alexandria and got beat up just about every day, probably because I didn’t have a Southern accent and didn’t dress like the tough kids on the wrong side of the track in Alexandria.
I missed the idyllic life in peaceful pre-war Battle Creek. I missed Bobby Baker and David King and Pete Shaw and Ron Harbert and Buddy Gage and Ann Jones and Mary Elizabeth Snyder. And all of this because of Pearl Harbor.