Thursday, December 27, 2007

BLITCHTON, Conclusion. Memoirs of Fleming Lee, Chapter 5, Part 2

Otis Jackson, Blitchton, Florida

Looking for Otis, we boys hurried down the back steps from the kitchen, past the long-handled well pump at the wash stand, near the low dome of the cistern, and entered a place even more removed from the green lawns and manicured shrubs of Gainesville and Ocala than the dwelling house. We walked on hot, dry sand among weathered, never-painted wooden buildings, each of which had its own special use and smell and charm. There was no grass in the yard — just snowy sand which Otis swept free of leaves with a brush broom he made by binding twigs together. Dr. Blitch had always insisted that the yard have no grass growing, and no debris, in order to protect the house from possible wildfires.


The first outbuilding was an open-fronted shed with a huge, iron cauldron set into a rough masonry base next to a long, deep shelf. All three of us boys could have climbed into that black iron vessel with room to spare. The pot played a role in the cleaning of pigs after slaughter — which reminds me that I once attended a hog killing at Blitchton, probably when I was ten or eleven years old. It was a cold morning. As always when something important was to be done, Negroes appeared from all quarters of the compass to help with the work. Their families had lived in the area, for the most part, since slavery days. Now they farmed their own land or lived as sharecroppers and made extra money – or sometimes got paid in meat or other edibles as Dr. Blitch had often been paid -- doing work for my family.


The plump, uneasy pig was in a large pen. People leaned or sat on the surrounding board fence, visible puffs of breath coming from their noses and mouths into the cold air. The pig probably expected food, but Landis – wearing, like my father, khaki pants tucked into high boots laced up the front -- went to the fence close to the animal, aimed a .22 rifle carefully at its head, and fired. The pig dropped instantly to the ground, rolling onto its side, senseless, legs quivering. In the same second, Lorraine, a young colored man who worked regularly at Blitchton, jumped from the top of the fence, a much-honed knife in his hand, and ran to the pig, plunging the knife into its throat and slashing. Blood poured from the gash onto the earth, and squirted up onto Lorraine’s arms and trousers. The Negroes on the fence laughed and hooted, while Lorraine danced backwards, shaking his hands and his head, cussing under his breath.

In spite of my empathy with all animals, the primitive spectacle fascinated me more than it appalled me. This was where our pork roasts and bacon and sausage came from. It had to be done so we could all eat, and it was less gruesome than when Daddy tied chickens by their feet to a bowed over sweetgum sapling in our back yard and cut off their heads with a butcher knife.

The dead hog was dragged from the pen, and the next thing I remember is its carcass being plunged into the hot water of the big black cauldron. Then it was put on a table and scraped free of bristles. The next phase would be skinning, and then butchering, at which point the pig began to look like food. There was a building where parts were ground up and seasoned with salt and pepper and sage and forced into sausage casings, except for the ground meat that would be used for fresh sausage patties. The sausages, belly, and hams, were taken to the fired-up smokehouse to hang until cured to smoky richness.

At the end of the day some meat was distributed, money was paid, and what in the morning had been a snuffling pig had become pork, and at nightfall its fragrance rose over many homes among the pine trees, oaks, and cabbage palms.

The slaughter of the pig was not the only such activity I saw at Blitchton. Once I watched Daddy and Landis kill a sheep, then hang it up by its hind legs and skin it. Blitchton had lots of sheep in those days. We had a sheepskin rug in our den, and lamb chops in our freezer.

Also on the unpleasant side was the branding of cattle, and the castration of calves and young pigs with giant pincers — all attended with a swirling of excited horses and dust and shouting men and squealing victims wrested to the ground. At least the pain in each case was momentary, and after the glowing brand had been pressed quickly to the hide, or the pincers snapped shut, the men would roll away or jump back and the animal would jump to its feet, shake its head, and run away, shake its head again, and soon behave as if nothing had happened.

As we boys continued our search for Otis, we looked up over to our right at the tower with a windmill on top which pumped water from a well for use in the house. Later it was blown over by a hurricane and never replaced. We peered into a small, low, sweet-smelling shed where chicken feed was stored. The chicken house itself was not far away, low, tin-roofed, walled in part with chicken wire.  From inside came an unending low cackling and other tones of chicken talk, occasionally accentuated with loud squawking of irritation or alarm. Although the chicken house had its own fenced yard, probably to protect the chickens from hawks and foxes and wild dogs, there were always some chickens running loose all over the place. I remember Gramma, a container of chicken feed held to her waist, wading out into an excited, swirling, hopping sea of chickens, broadcasting seeds in every direction.

My favorite outbuilding was the smokehouse. Like most of the structures, its door was secured with a latch made of a short piece of smooth wood which swiveled on a nail, but unlike the other buildings scattered behind the main house it was thoroughly sealed. We would invariably open the door and peek inside. Even if the smokehouse were empty, its dark interior was impregnated with an incredibly wonderful smell which came from scores of years of smoldering hickory wood and darkening hams and bacon and links of sausage – the temple of a perfume so heavenly as to bring doubt into the mind of the most devout vegetarian.

By then we probably would have encountered Otis, but if not, we would go on toward the barn, which was vastly larger than the other buildings put together. Like the other buildings, it was built of rough, unpainted lumber roofed with rust covered corrugated metal. It combined stables for horses and mules with stalls for cows and a space for the shelter for farm machinery. A large fenced corral was overshadowed by a gigantic pecan tree whose nuts in season sprinkled the ground over a huge area.

In one part of the barn the milking was done. In another part great quantities of hay and dried corn were stored – so much loose hay that my cousins and I would leap from the ladder which led to the loft down into the soft, sweet-smelling hill of grass – and end up itching for a long time afterward. Up in the loft area there was a hand-operated device for stripping dried corn from the cob. A central passageway on the ground floor led along the stalls where horses and cows came up to their troughs to eat feed served up from a heavy wooden scoop. Much of the wood — the troughs, the scoop, the posts of the stalls, the door handles and latches, had been worn smooth and shiny over the years until it looked more like polished stone than something made from trees.

There were other buildings, further out. On the side of Gramma’s house opposite from Landis’s house was a big garage which held the tractor and other big machinery, as well as an impressive collection of license plates nailed to the wall, probably going back to the first automobile Dr. Blitch acquired.

Way out beyond the barn, on the other side of a pasture, was the place where cane syrup was made. From here come some of my favorite memories of Blitchton. In the autumn, a huge field of sugar cane would be cut and brought next to the syrup shed. As when animals were slaughtered, the occasion brought numerous colored people from their homes around the area to assist in the work. I gather that Gramma and Landis employed a few of them full time — for example to work as cowboys or to help with housework and cooking and laundry — but I think most of them got paid for helping with seasonal events like harvesting and the pig butchering.

Anyway, a lot of people turned out for cane grinding, including us who drove from Gainesville, and it was more like a festive holiday than a chore. The cane grinding mechanism consisted of two big upright steel rollers turned by a tractor engine linked to the machinery of the rollers by an endless belt. In older days or poorer farms the motive power was supplied by a mule walking in a large circle around and around rollers at the end of a long pole. The cane juice gushed from the rollers and was channeled into large galvanized metal tubs with a loose handle on each side. It would take two men to carry each tub over to the cooking vat in the mostly open shed. The vat was a long, bathtub-like container — only much longer than a bathtub — set into a bed of bricks and stone above a space for the wood fire which could be seen glowing and crackling brightly through the access hole at one end. The tubs of juice would be dumped into the vat until it was full, and the heat of the fire would very slowly simmer it down to the right consistency.

Fresh squeezed sugar cane juice is almost sickeningly sweet. Pale, foamy, watery, it did not invite more than a sip — although my cousin, Sim, inadvertently took a bath in it when he backed into one of the tubs full of juice and sat down up to his neck in it. But once cooked down to a certain dark thickness it makes a most delicious syrup, as we would find by sticking pieces of cane stalk into the cooking vat and sampling the contents. I especially liked to collect the foam that rose to the top of the simmering syrup; it became thick, almost like candy, as it cooled on the piece of cane stalk. It was not, however, supposed to be part of the syrup, and men with wire skimmers kept clearing the top of the syrup of foam, bees, flies, and miscellaneous debris until it was time to drain the finished product from the vat. It ended up being funneled into bottles (some of which I think had begun as liquor or soft drink bottles), which were capped and for the most part labeled because they were to be sold to grocers. We always had unlabeled bottles at home. Everybody at the cane grinding took home syrup one way or another, and the rest went off to market. No pancake or waffle, or cornbread or biscuit for dessert would have been imaginable without that syrup. Daddy said that in the old days the black field workers would often bring their lunch in a bucket (called a syrup bucket — half a gallon or so in size, shiny metal, with an inset lid and a wire handle), with cane syrup in the bottom of the bucket, a drinking glass upside down in the syrup, and a piece of cornbread on top of the glass. Cane syrup, like sweet mixed pickles from Cairo (“Kayro”), Georgia, is something I’ve tried to have with me at all times, even when living in Washington State or England. I’ve always used cane syrup not only for pancakes and such, but also, along with catchup, mustard, and a little Worcester sauce, to improve canned pork and beans.

I feel compelled to explain to those unfortunate enough not to know the real thing that sugar cane syrup is not dark and strong like molasses, and bears no resemblance to the mixtures sold as “cane syrup” in supermarkets, and cannot be replaced by brown sugar. Molasses was to us was a strong-tasting, iron-flavored oddity from the north. The true cane syrup of Florida and Georgia is a little thinner than most honey but thick enough for fine control when pouring over a waffle. When you hold a good bottle up to the sky you see light through it. But it has to be the right amount of light. Little light or no light coming through the bottle means that the juice was cooked too long; too much light means that it is thin, cooked too little, or even adulterated with water or corn syrup. You can also tell a good batch by the way it moves about in the bottle when you tilt it back and forth: Leisurely, clinging to the glass, is good. Quickly means watery. Sluggishly means too thick and strong-tasting.

Back to our arrival at Blitchton and search for Otis. (Do you detect that I’m easily distracted by food?) We would usually meet him long before we even got to the barn, much less clear out at the gate which separated the home area and its outbuildings from the pastures and syrup shed beyond. When he came into view we would shout, “Otis! Otis!” and run toward him. It seems to me he was always carrying a bucket in one hand, with his other hand held out from his body for counterbalance. The lower part of his wizened black face was covered with white frost of whiskers, and his head was topped with that crumpled, stained Stetson hat. Otis was about Gramma’s age, getting old, a little stooped, his cheeks and lips drawn if he weren’t wearing his false teeth. When he saw us he would smile and put down whatever he was carrying — and he was never not carrying something — and hug us when we ran up to him. Considering that we saw him only a few times a year, and then usually for one day at a time, we were as fond of him and as eager to see him as if we had lived with him for years, and he was said to be very fond of us. We were much more enthusiastic about visiting him than Gramma or our cousins next door, although we liked them too.

I’ll tell Otis’s history soon, but for now I’ll stay with our being with him.

I don’t remember much conversation with Otis. He was probably not much practiced in conversation. Mostly we just followed him around and watched him do things and, theoretically, helped him do them. Feeding chickens was fun, but going into the henhouse and collecting eggs was more interesting. There was something miraculous about finding fresh, warm eggs in the straw of the nests, and I was intrigued by the glistening white china eggs that were put in some of the nests. (As I recall, Gramma was often involved with the chickens, her other special area being a very large fenced garden of vegetables, flowers, and fruit trees across the rutted road from the windmill.) Other high points were feeding the cows and horses from inside the barn, and milking the cow, a skill I never acquired. The best part of that was when Otis (or my cousin Sim, who often did the milking) would point an udder toward the waiting cat and squirt milk in its mouth — more or less in its mouth, anyway.

At Gramma’s kitchen door was the slop bucket, where peelings, and scrapings from dinner plates, stale bread, and milk, and all manner of edible garbage were collected for the pigs which lived in the field across the paved road from the house. Otis would take up the pungent bucket in one hand, throw out his other arm, and trudge around the house to the road with a group of children in tow — usually cousins Ann and Sim would have joined us by now — who contributed by carrying corn on the cob and other fairly clean and dry forms of nourishment.

The main reason that feeding the pigs was so exhilarating was the extreme excitement of the pigs when Otis called them. Otis would shout, high-pitched, “Soo pig! Soo pig!” and from all over that field pigs would come galloping like bulky race horses, heeling to forty-five degree angles in the turns, bumping one another, squealing so loudly that it hurt my ears. Otis and would lean over the fence and dump the bucket into the trough and onto the heads of the crowding, nudging, grunting, shrilly shrieking diners, and the rest of us would happily toss in our bits.

I visited Otis’s little wooden house only a few times, and I wish I could remember more about it. I don’t want to fill in with imagination. A bed covered with a patchwork quilt took up a third of the space, I think, and there was a chair or two and a table. A sweater and a worn leather jacket hung on hooks. There was a mirror on the wall, and on a chest of drawers under it were a basin and a straight razor. Some of the cigars and candy we gave Otis for Christmas might be visible.  Gordon remembers a collection of presidential campaign buttons, as well as other pins or badges. Under the bed Otis kept a lightning bolt he had found in a tree that had been struck in a storm. It protected against lightning. He said there was always a lightning bolt in or under a tree after lightning struck. The “bolts” he showed us were metal. He also sometimes saw blue lights in the woods at night and followed them, but never caught up with them.

How I wish now that I had learned more about Otis. I wonder what he did to pass his time when he was not working, what he thought, how he felt about things, whether he really had no friends outside my family, and if so, why. Otis’s story became much more important to me when I grew up and he was gone — buried in the Blitch family cemetery under a tombstone which read, “Well done, good and faithful servant” — than when I was a child and he was just a curious feature of my own life.

Otis Jackson was a black man with a small frame, bent with age, white-mustached, always wearing suspenders and, while working, a worn Stetson hat of the kind my father wore to go to church. Under the hat was a mostly bald head with sparse, tiny curls of gray hair. His destiny intersected that of my family at a turpentine camp many years before I ever saw him. My grandfather, as State Prison Physician, would tour the prisons and related facilities. Otis was a convict who had been leased by the State with others to work at the turpentine facility. The collection of pine tree sap for the manufacture of turpentine was a major industry in Florida at that time. Cups were attached to tree trunks for gathering the sticky sap that oozed from a slash in the bark. The sticky contents of the cups were collected and stored in wooden barrels to be processed into turpentine.

Anyway, Otis was working at a turpentine camp shortly after the turn of the century. He was young, imprisoned for killing a man. I think Daddy said that Otis had been working as a security guard when it happened. My mother said something about self-defense. Doctor Blitch found that Otis Jackson’s feet were in terrible shape, aggravated by walking in pine tree sap with inadequate shoes. That led to my grandfather having Otis released to his care.

And so Otis Jackson came to live at Blitchton when my father was a young boy — probably about 1906 or 1907 – and never left. My father said Otis was probably his best friend when Daddy was growing up.  For some time Otis lived in a cabin on the outskirts of the collection of buildings that was the home area, and then, at some point before Mother married Daddy in 1927, he moved into “Liza’s house” not far behind and to the side of the Blitch home. Liza had been a cook, and when she was gone Otis inherited the house. If he was over seventy when we knew him, he’d been living alone in that cabin for half a century.

Otis lived in the room of the house which had a fireplace — the other room being used for storage. It was basically a place for sleeping. He ate all of his meals and did a lot of sitting in the large kitchen area of the Blitch house. I remember that when he was not sitting in there, and Gramma wanted him, she’d go onto the back porch and call in a loud, shrill voice, “O-tis! O-tis!” from the back porch, prolonging the “O”, accent on the “t”. His work was restricted to the areas immediately around the house — feeding chickens and livestock, milking the cow, sweeping the yard, cranking the corn machine, and things of that kind. When I knew him he did not do field work or other heavy labor, although in the past he had worked side by side with my father and others in the fields, sometimes wielding the “snake stick” to kill a rattler disturbed by the farm machinery. And of course he did no house work, which was the province of several women. Mother said that while he had jobs to do, he was “pretty much his own boss” in deciding what to do, and where to be, and when. If he was not working, eating, sleeping, or relaxing in his house or the kitchen, he was most likely to be hunting. Mother told me he’d always loved hunting, and that Dr. Blitch gave him a shotgun not long after Otis came to live at Blitchton.


Once Otis took me with him squirrel hunting. We went down to a pond in the hammock woods, Otis cradling his venerable shotgun under his arm. He told me to lie down on my back and watch the treetops. He lay down next to me and told me to just stay still and wait. Which reminds me that I cannot specifically remember anything else that Otis ever said. That’s mostly due to lost memories, but probably also because there was not much conversation. We watched the boughs of the hickories and oaks until a squirrel appeared, and Otis quietly but quickly pointed his shotgun to the sky, braced it against his shoulder, and fired. A squirrel came tumbling down through the leaves and plopped limply onto the ground. Back at the house, Otis showed me how to skin a squirrel, like pulling a sweater off over its head.

Otis never showed any desire to leave Blitchton, even for trips, even after Doctor Blitch, to whom he was devoted, passed away. He apparently never became attached to anyone outside my family. While he would go up to the store to buy tobacco, he didn’t spend much time there. On Sunday mornings he would put on a tie and a suit and go to church, where the other Negroes always addressed him respectfully as “Mister Otis.”

At Christmas we, and Landis’s family, and Gramma, would give him things like sweaters and tobacco. Almost everything he had — from quilts to shirts and overalls to his shotgun and rifle and ammunition — were bought and given to him, rather than bought with money paid to him. Otis was simply indifferent to money and to the outer world. It was absolutely impossible to picture him anywhere but at Blitchton. The idea of Otis working at a gas station, or as a janitor in some city building, or at Morrison’s cafeteria as a waiter, or as a porter on the Orange Blossom Special, or in any of the other jobs which black men tended to have in those days, was frightening. It was as if Blitchton itself were a bubble from a former century which had somehow survived past its time, floating on the surface of the Twentieth Century with Otis and his cabin and Gramma and her house protected inside, until finally the bubble popped and all was gone except for the tombstones in the sandy family cemetery, surrounded by an ancient rusting metal fence.

This concludes the Blitchton chapter, but there will be more about Blitchton and my relatives there in future chapters.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

BLITCHTON Memoirs of Fleming Lee, Chapter 5, Part 1

Blitchton is like a foundation stone which has to be put in place before the rest of this story can be built. In the constellation of places which marked the boundaries of my world — Gainesville, Blitchton, Ocala, Lake Weir, and, like farthest Thule, Jacksonville and Cohens Brothers department store — Blitchton was more than a point on the surface of the Florida peninsula. It had another dimension. It was the crystallized past. Not only did it preserve, in appearance and activity, the old Florida frontier of cattle and cracker cowboys -- but it was also always linked with stories of past generations and old wars.

Mother’s family and their homes in Ocala were, in my mind, “like us,” like my friends and their families in Gainesville, but Daddy’s country was from a different world, one which I am very glad that I got to see but where I was always like a fascinated foreigner in an old land populated by cows and sheep and horses and pigs and chickens, where metal-roofed houses rested on stacks of stones on lawns of raked white sand, and to use the telephone you had to turn a crank.

When I was a child Blitchton covered several thousand acres. It was part ranch, part farm, very much as it had been in the late 19th Century when Daddy was born there. After Mother and Daddy were married in 1927 (seven years after Daddy’s father died on January 30, 1920) they moved to Blitchton in 1928 from an Ocala apartment; they were going to make their living ranching and operating the new sawmill. Blitchton had long been a little community with its own school, white wooden church, a store or two, and my grandfather’s medical office. By the time I knew it, Blitchton was mostly a crossroads with a name (it’s still on the state map, though its name came to be misspelled “Blichton” in spite of family efforts to have it corrected). There was still the store built by Daddy and his brother at the meeting of State Road 326 and U.S. 27 (the stretch of U.S. 27 that runs the 13 miles from Ocala to Blitchton being known in Ocala as the “Blitchton Road”), and the remains of the abandoned old store and medical office.

Blitchton Store, 1932

A few hundred yards down a quiet, shady road from the crossroads was the old church next to a cemetery, the old store building of sagging dark lumber, and on the left side of the road, “the homeplace” where Gramma (grandmother Dollie Davis Blitch) lived and my father had grown up.

The town of Blitchton had been created by and around Dr. Simeon Hardee Blitch, my father’s father. Dr. Blitch’s father, James, had received wilderness land in that part of Florida after military service under General Andrew Jackson, under the “Armed Occupation Act”. By marking and fencing boundaries and successfully defending them from Indians, the family had earned ownership of this remote land of pine woods, palmettos, and the rich shady forests called hammocks – big verdant islands of oak, hickory, ironwood and myriad other trees in an ocean of white sand. The Indians that had been there long before left behind their mounds and many arrowheads and fragmented artifacts. The Spanish explorers had crossed there, leaving rumors of buried treasure chests. Otherwise the territory was untouched until my ancestors settled there in the 1830’s.

Dr. Blitch, as we heard him called by everyone from my Mother to the inhabitants of the Blitchton area, was legendary not just because he was dead but because was always recalled as an extraordinary person even in places far beyond Blitchton. Maybe that was not only because Florida had been a small world in the early 20th century, but also because my grandfather had been Florida’s state prison physician and a member of the state legislature for several terms in the late 1880s. Even at college age I was still meeting strangers as far away as Tampa who, when they heard my name, asked if I were related to “Dr. Blitch.”

The youngest of a large number of children in a family which lost many men in the War Between the States, he worked for awhile in a saloon in his youth and became disgusted by the effects of alcohol. He moved on to Cedar Key, ferrying mail to the offshore islands. Then my grandfather entered medical school at Louisville Medical College in Louisville, Kentucky. Not having enough money to pay his way, he persuaded the administration to let him pursue his medical degree in exchange for work as a janitor. His residence was the school’s furnace room. He became an outstanding student, earned his degree with distinction, and returned to Florida to practice medicine.  Among several medals he received in academic recognition, we still possess a gold medal engraved, "Prize on Anatomy to S.H. Blitch from Prof. C. W. Kelley, L.M.C., Feb. 27/78", his freshman year. 

He had offices at both Blitchton and Ocala, and until automobiles became available, he traveled the unpaved thirteen miles back and forth by horse and buggy. It is hard to imagine now, zipping along Route 27 at seventy miles an hour in a fleet of other vehicles, what it must have been like to travel alone that road at the pace of a horse’s trot, flanked by forests largely untouched, hearing nothing louder over the jingle of harness and the clopping of hooves than a bird’s cry, or a dog’s bark, or the lowing of a cow. My father recalled riding with his father to and from Ocala in that way, enjoying the incense of warm bread from the bakery on the journey home.

(My father, before he was married, received the contract to clear the path for a prospective paved road across Marion County to the Levy County line. Where his father had once driven a horse and buggy, and later bounced along in a model T Ford, Daddy and his crews cleared underbrush, cut down trees, and dynamited stumps to make way for the new, asphalt road — and for the new tourists from the North who contributed so much to his aggravation while driving. One of Daddy’s favorite stories was about a worker who put too much dynamite under a stump and blew it clear through the front door of a roadside “shotgun” house and out the back.)

In spite of living in a rural area which until later in his life was on the boundary of civilization, Dr. Blitch gained national fame because of a surgical procedure which he originated. A young black boy at Blitchton had a club foot, a condition then supposed to be untreatable. Dr. Blitch decided that there was a way to operate which would bring the foot much closer to normal. His surgery succeeded, and the boy was able to walk as if he had no affliction. Dr. Blitch was asked to come to New York to Columbia University Medical School to demonstrate the operation there, which he did. I wondered if this story had been exaggerated, but years later, in a university library, I searched out a report of it in an old medical journal and saw my grandfather’s name there, and an article about his innovation.

When he was elected to the Florida legislature for several terms, he named his daughter “Legie” for that reason. He was apparently captivated by “L’s” because he named my father “Loonis” and his brother “Landis.” My father was afflicted with his name because one of Dr. Blitch’s good friends was named “Loomis,” and Dr. Blitch wanted to name Daddy after him, but not quite. My father’s name was as often misspelled as correctly spelled.

Photographs show that my grandfather was a slender man with striking eyes, like the eyes of a hypnotist, under dark brows. His head was crowned by thick, wavy hair, and his mouth is mostly hidden by a full moustache which turns up to points at the ends about halfway across his cheeks, making his chin seem small in comparison. In some of the old photographs he has his arm around an attractive woman and looks quite pleased with the situation.

My father revered his father and always preserved his saddle bags, which held old medicines drying in their glass bottles which we still possess. Daddy also showed us the microscope from the Blitchton office, with which his father had impressed young Loonis with views of living germs scraped from a dog’s tongue, hoping to discourage the child from letting pets lick his mouth.

My grandfather left behind a wealth of land, but little money. At one time he owned most of what has become downtown Ocala, which would have made us all very rich, but he guaranteed a loan for a friend, and when the friend defaulted Dr. Blitch paid the debt and lost his Ocala real estate. I identified with him not only because of his lack of business sense but also because his predominant trait was said to be a one track mind. Unfortunately I did not also share the dedication and persistence which kept his career on one track.

My father’s mother was Mary Susan “Dollie” Davis before she got married. Her family fled from South Carolina after the South lost the war. Some of the men in the family had continued guerilla operations after Lee’s surrender, taking part in an ambush of Northern troops. They were also involved in the Ku Klux Klan. Some of the men of the family were caught and jailed, but one of their former slaves used a mule and rope to pull out the window bars so the prisoners could escape in the night. Our cousin Ann, who grew up on the farm next door to the Dr. Blitch residence, said that Dollie was in vitro as they traveled the escape route and was born after their arrival in Marion County.

They made their way south to Florida and traveled by boat down the St. Johns River and Oklawaha River to the Silver River, on which they journeyed on to Silver Springs, where they looked for a new place to settle down. So, my grandmother’s family saw Silver Springs when it was just a docking place for river craft, not yet decorated by those glass bottomed boats and souvenir shops by means of which, more than half a century later, Hugh Ray’s (my mother’s brother-in-law’s) father and his partner Davidson turned Silver Springs into a national tourist attraction.

My grandfather died of pneumonia at the age of 64, in 1920, exhausted from treating people during the great flu epidemic of 1918, and so Gramma had been a widow for a number of years by the time I first remember her, at the end of the 1930's. She looked the part of the frontier wife — thin, with stern, wrinkled features behind a pair of rimless spectacles, not much given to laughing, her gray hair parted down the middle and pulled hard back above her ears into a bun at the back of her head. She always wore heavy-looking black shoes, and her dresses hung on her thin body as if on a rack. Her clothes definitely had not been designed with glamour in mind, and fitted in with her stern Southern Baptist attitudes. (I could not even begin to imagine Dollie Davis as a girl until after my parents died, when I saw her girlhood scrapbook. Lots of flowers, and poetry almost entirely on the subject of marriage and getting married. There was not much variety in the scrapbook, whose colorful contents were almost all from cards given away with household purchases – probably a symptom of living far from the population and publication centers of 19th Century America.

Gramma was very strict as a mother, and my father complained about her harshness, of her making him go to school even when he was sick. Although she always had a lot of hired help from what she called “the darkies” (the polite term in her day) around Blitchton, I never saw her do anything but work . . . which most picturesquely included churning butter in a barrel between her legs.

Unlike the lavish oral history that commemorated her husband, Gramma generated few stories. The one I remember best is that she was out in a pasture with a small child when a bull charged the child. Gramma grabbed her sunbonnet and threw it over the bull’s face, so that she could run with the child to safety. Another story was that Gramma had gone to a lot of trouble to fix a big meal, and when all the food was on the dining table Dr. Blitch attacked a fly with a fly swatter and hit the chandelier, sending a shower of shattered glass down onto the dinner. “I don’t think I ever saw Mama so mad,” Daddy would laugh.

When we drove to Blitchton from Gainesville the game was, “Where does our land begin?” There was a lot of it. Daddy and his brother had added to the original with low-priced purchases while they were young. There was a pond on the right side of Route 27 which marked the beginning as we headed south from Williston, and all three children vied to make the announcement as it came in sight. We knew that everything from here on was “ours”. From that spot on, every tree, every fence, every squirrel or cow took on a special meaning.

We would watch for the state road sign, “BLITCHTON,” and shortly we would arrive at the crossroads store. The Blitchton Store had a metal roof in two levels which covered the main building and an open porch across the front, eternally occupied by a few loungers of both races. There was a gas pump or two. In the oldest days I can remember the pump had a glass tank at the top. The required amount of gas was pumped by hand up into the glass tank, marked with measurement lines, and then released down the hose into the waiting car or truck or tractor.

When we got out of our car to go inside, the omnipresent loiterers — seated in chairs or on the steps or propped against a railing — would stir. They all knew my parents.

“Hey, Loonis,” a beer bellied white man would say.

“Hey, Mr. Bleech,” a black man would say. “Good mornin’, Miz Bleech.”

(Every colored person in the area invariably pronounced the name as “Bleech” to rhyme with “bleach” instead of “Blitch” to rhyme with “itch” as every white person did. Why would that be?)

On the outside wall by the front door was a giant thermometer embodied in a rusting advertisement for Nehi sodas. Inside, the place was dim and fragrant, particularly with the scent of the tobacco of unsold cigars, snuff, and chewing tobacco. To the left was the counter with the cash register. In the front of the counter was a bullet hole, its edges worn smooth by inquisitive fingers, which a would-be robber had created when shooting at Landis during an unsuccessful hold-up. On the counter were big jars containing packets of Tom’s peanut butter crackers, and salted peanuts, candy bars, pickled sausages, and oversized dill pickles under mold-surfaced liquid. Facing the counter were slide-top coolers containing the soft drinks and beer, and the rest of the place was packed with merchandise of all kinds, with the emphasis on canned goods.

The most memorable thing about visiting the store was the sight of men opening their bottles of beer and then dumping salt into the bottles. As I remember, salt makes beer foam, and the drinker would have to clap his mouth over the opening to keep his brew from erupting onto the floor.

I don’t think there was another store within miles, probably not closer than Williston or Fellowship, and so the Blitchton Store was the gathering place for everybody, black and white, who lived or worked in the area. From morning until after dark, in addition to people of both sexes shopping or filling conveyances with gas, the lounging men were eating, drinking, spitting tobacco juice, and above all talking and laughing. The enterprising manager even projected movies on the white side of the building at night, and barbequed goats.

After we visited the store and got soft drinks, we would drive the few hundred yards down a shady road to the home place. The schoolhouse had once been on the right side of the road, and when I was very young the little church still stood nearby. But in almost all of my memories, only the cemetery remained, surrounded by a wire fence, entered through a little gate. The biggest tombstone belongs to Dr. Blitch. Daddy’s brother Lansing, who had died an infant, was buried there. So were numerous other people named “Blitch” and their relatives. Almost all the dates on the stones started with “18" instead of “19.”

The first home, on the left, a simple one storied place probably built in the 1930's, belonged to Uncle Landis and Aunt Mary and our cousins, Ann and Sim. Then, after a hundred yards or so, on the same side of the road, was the house in which Daddy had grown up, and where his mother and father had lived from the time they were married.

Gramma’s house had grown like a living thing — starting small, adding rooms as life developed. The heart of the rambling "homeplace" dated back to the 19th Century. Supported a foot or more above the sandy ground by foundation pillars of flat limestone rocks, and topped by a three gabled metal roof broken here and there by a chimney, the home place had no doubt started with a kitchen, dining room, bedroom and a sitting room, and then added breezy screened walkways, more bedrooms, bathrooms, a formal entrance parlor, and a partially screened porch which ran across the front and down both sides. On the right side was the self-contained apartment in which Mother and Daddy had lived when they were first married in 1927, until the Depression drove my father to a job in St. Augustine, and which Gramma now rented to someone. On the front porch was one of my favorite things — a porch swing big enough for four people, suspended by chains from the ceiling. It was much more comfortable than the rocking chairs, with their starched and ironed white back covers, and we had nothing like it at home.

When we arrived, Gramma would greet us on the front porch and hug us, smiling, showing bits of gold in her teeth, looking as if smiling was unfamiliar to her, yet full of pleasure at seeing us. We would quickly end up in the kitchen, where the original cooking stove burned wood, and the later one kerosene. Their scents, somehow very pleasant, combined with the lingering smell of steaming coffee and the buttery perfume of Gramma’s inimitable yellow cake with boiled white icing to give the kitchen a unique and indelible odor.

When I asked Mother why Gramma’s cakes smelled better than anyone else’s, she said it was a lot of “country butter.” As I’ve mentioned, Gramma churned the butter herself, using a big paddle to transform milk brought up from the barn still foamy. She would take out a ball of butter between her hands and squeeze and shape it on a plate. I didn’t like country butter because it was not salted, but I loved the things cooked with it.

After greeting Gramma, we children would race out onto the white sand of the back yard to find the main object of our interest — Otis.

(To be continued, with illustrations.)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

LAKE WEIR: Memoirs of Fleming Lee Chapter 4

I am posting a link to this chapter because I posted it out of order before I decided to post my Memoirs. So, please use the link to read Chapter 4, posted as "August Memoir".


Monday, September 17, 2007

MY FIRST WAR -- Memoirs of Fleming Lee, Chapter 3, Part 2

Among other pointless wartime activities organized by Roosevelt’s government was airplane spotting. In a big clearing at the Blitchton crossroads, next to the white-painted wooden store that my father and his brother had built many years before, an official tower was erected. When you climbed the pine ladder and stepped onto the timber-supported platform your feet were at about the level of the store’s roof. From this frightening height, near tree top level, protected by railings and shaded by a high roof, you could see the sky all around.

Local civilians took turns manning the tower. Gramma (Daddy’s mother), as the matriarch of the community, was in charge of the whole operation, or at least I thought she was. During her watch she would sit, thin and straight, in gold-rimmed glasses, in her longish flower-print country dress, on a folding chair with binoculars around her neck and a log book and binder of aircraft silhouettes next to her on a little table.

She would shell blackeyed peas into a colander in her lap as she scanned the bright Florida sky for a miraculous materialization of Messerschmitts. When occasionally a plane would drone lazily into sight, and she would look at it through the binoculars and make a note in the log book. If the intruder had shown the profile of an enemy plane she would have made a phone call, but I'm sure she never made a phone call; all enemy planes were hopelessly separated from Blitchton by broad oceans and thousands of miles.

Unlike aircraft, German submarines could and did reach Florida, sinking merchant ships within sight of the beach. Sometimes members of the U-boat crews surreptitiously came ashore — for sightseeing purposes rather than to spy, but espionage stories abounded, as did tales that this or that pair of men who at some store or other had bought a bottle of milk and ice cream, or Coca Colas and a newspaper, were from German submarines. It was said that when a certain German submarine was disabled off the central Florida coast , a copy of the morning paper was on board.

When our dog, Nippy, who was almost a cocker spaniel, came whining slowly home one morning with blood on his black and white coat from what appeared to be a bullet wound in his neck skin, Daddy concluded that German spies had shot him. Why would German spies shoot a cocker spaniel? Because during his nightly ramblings Nippy found them spying in our neighborhood, and he started barking, and they shot him to shut him up. Luckily Nippy recovered. That German inflicted wound to a member of our family was the closest the war ever touched us personally.

A daily feature – several times a day, in fact -- during that period was Daddy listening to the war news on the radio. Those were protected moments with which nothing must interfere. “The war news is coming on,” meant keep quiet and stay out of the way. The correspondents and commentators would talk about this front and the other front, attacks, counterattacks and retreats by the enemy or strategic regroupings by the Americans, while Daddy listened intently and I waited for something more interesting to come on.

Once I asked him, “Will they still have news programs when the war is over?”

He laughed and answered, “Sure they will.”

“But what could they have on them? All the news is about the war.”

When we were not listening to the radio in the evening, Daddy would sit and read the newspaper. We had the Jacksonville 'Times Union' delivered in the morning and the much slimmer 'Gainesville Sun' in the afternoon. There was no television yet, and I don’t recall that we ever played phonograph records. In comparison with the audiovisual overload of evenings in later years it is hard for me to imagine now how everybody passed the time between our 6:30 supper and bedtime. Maybe that’s one reason I took to reading in such a big way.

During those war years (and in subsequent years as well) we never went out to eat except at the sedate Primrose Grill for a rare Sunday lunch, and I can recall only one time that we had company except when relatives came from Ocala on holidays. That was when a college friend of Daddy’s who had become a preacher was in Gainesville overnight to speak at the Baptist church. He and his wife ate at our dining room table, and we children listened in awe to the sonorous tones of this great man, about whose importance we’d been duly informed. He was by far the most prestigious person we had ever met. All I can remember is that he was very serious, and that he said he would not eat any bread before he preached. When I asked him why, he said something about digestion and Mother changed the subject.

The question returns to nag me, what in the world did everyone do in the evenings? As I recall, unless the radio was on, which it often was, the livingroom was very quiet. It was so quiet that what I remember best is the slight squeaking sound that Daddy absentmindedly made as his fingers rubbed the pages of the newspaper together while he absorbed column after column of war news. Occasionally he might comment.

“They have this new bum” — he pronounced “bomb” “bum” — “They have this new bum that’ll destroy a whole block. They call it a blockbuster.” He shook his head. “One bum that blows up all the houses in a block. Isn’t that terrible? But we have to do it.”

Mother might be looking at a different part of the newspaper, or a magazine like "Life" or "Colliers" or "The Saturday Evening Post.: I, of course, was usually reading, often up in my own room, although I might play with my metal toy soldiers on the livingroom floor, or get involved in a children’s board or card game with my mother and brothers. Mostly, though, I just remember how quiet and uneventful the evenings were — somewhat representative of our entire family history, where nothing big or unusual or dramatic ever happened, and during which I cannot recall my parents ever having a fight or raising their voices at one another.

One momentous night Mother and Daddy woke my brothers and me up before dawn and told us they wanted us to be able to remember an historic occasion.

Sirens were sounding outside in the Gainesville darkness. It was D Day. The invasion of Europe from England was taking place. We clustered around the radio and heard excited reports spoken from the decks of ships, the sounds of explosions and screaming airplane engines in the background. And then, none too sure what we had just experienced, we three boys went back to our beds.

I recall much more clearly a night when we were roused from sleep and brought out into the front yard to see one of the greatest meteor showers ever. It was definitely much more impressive than any I have ever seen since. Scarcely a second went by that at least one shooting star did not highlight the tracery of our pine trees and palm fronds. Often multiple streaks of fire illuminated the sky at the same time, illuminating our lawn. I wish I knew what year and month that was.

Another memorable wartime episode came on another night, but this time very early in the evening, before dinner as I recall. I was in the livingroom when I heard shouts in the dark street outside, that street whose thick pavement of pine needles normally muffled the sounds of passersby.

“Extra! Extra!”

We went to the front door, and in the dusk we could see two boys with bags of newspapers slung on their shoulders coming down either side of Fletcher Terrace.

“Extra! President Roosevelt dies! President Roosevelt is dead! Extra!”

We bought a "Gainesville Sun", and there were those gigantic black headlines one sees only in wartime taking up at least a third of the front page, and a big picture of F.D.R. In my family this was news to be treated with mixed emotions. Although Roosevelt was a Democrat, and nobody in the south, including my parents, could even have imagined voting Republican, he was considered by my father to have been the promoter of useless, ruinous, socialist schemes designed to end a Depression which would soon have ended itself through natural causes. Roosevelt, he said, had made government too big and too powerful, and had piled tormenting paperwork on county agents and others. Eleanor Roosevelt was worse than Franklin, even to the point of trying to upset the delicate balance between white and black in the South. At the same time, my parents were too nice and too Christian to express pleasure about anybody’s death, especially at the height of a war in which this president had been touted as a patriotic symbol. There was a somber air in our house as those old enough to read pored over the freshly ink-impregnated newsprint.

One time in our back yard, several children discussed the puzzling question, “How do wars start?”

I came up with the inspired answer: Two people started fighting, and just as on the school grounds everybody would run to watch. Then the friends of the two fighters began fighting on each side, and their friends joined in, until finally the battle grew so big that it was a war, with thousands of people fighting on each side.

“Then millions of people.”

“And then a trillion.”

“Then a million trillion.

“A million trillion trillion. . .”

“There aren’t that many people in the world!”

“Yes there are.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

“No you don’t.”

“Hey, we might be starting a war right here!”

It was an exciting thought, but it didn’t develop. What did come out of that discussion was the idea that a war might have three or four groups fighting one another simultaneously. After I had learned a little more about history, in a moment of illumination I realized that none of the wars I knew about involved more than two sides. Why was that?

I do not remember the day in 1945 that Germany surrendered, but Japan’s surrender a few months later takes me to the place where we heard that news — Lake Weir – which in turn takes me to that small area of the planet outside Gainesville which completed my world.

(To be continued in Chapter 4.)

Copyright 2005 by Fleming Lee

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

MEMOIRS OF FLEMING LEE Chapter Three, Part 1


While we were living in our little rented house after arriving in Gainesville, our main entertainment, other than my parents’ ritualistic reading of the daily newspaper, was the radio. Even before we left St. Augustine I had developed an addiction to afternoon serials like “The Lone Ranger”, his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, and his great horse Silver (“Hi ho, Silver!”); “Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy”; “The Johnson Family”; “The Shadow” — all of which, as I recall, were sources of trinkets such as rings that glowed in the dark (the excitement of opening the little package and going into the closet and seeing the mystic light in the blackness) and secret code wheels. There was also “The Whistler” and some character who investigated apparent supernatural phenomena and always uncovered some comforting natural explanation, such as proving that the howling ghost was only the wind in a chink in the lighthouse wall.

The after supper radio programs were aimed more at adult tastes, or what passed for adult tastes in the United States. There were musical programs, from Kate Smith and opera singers to the Grand Old Opry, as well as dramas, but for us children the best shows were clustered on Sunday night: Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Fibber Magee and Molly, and Edgar Bergen and Charley McCarthy were the much-anticipated high points. I also liked The Great Gildersleeve, Amos and Andy, and Henry Aldrich, although I’m not sure when they were broadcast. On Sunday nights the incomparable comedy lineup ended when “One Man’s Family” began.
One Sunday morning in December, not many months after moving from St. Augustine to Gainesville, we drove down to Blitchton, the farm where my father was born and raised. Our Blitchton land, which at that time consisted of 3000 acres or more, will have a chapter of its own, and so I will just say here that it was about thirty miles southwest of Gainesville, and that my father’s mother, and his brother and his wife and two children, lived there in adjacent houses near the crossroads of Route 27 and State Road 326, where the community of Blitchton had grown up around my then grandfather’s rural medical practice and other activities.
Several times each year we would go down to Blitchton for the day, sometimes not making our grandmother and uncle and cousins aware of our presence, and enjoy walking through the expanses of pine woods, hammocks, and grazing lands. Those who were old enough to bear the weight of a .22 rifle would shoot at tin cans and bottles lined up on a fence. We would visit a pond or two and admire the basking turtles and the occasional alligator, and on occasion launch a floating bottle to explode with rifle fire.
“Look at that boat. Watch the boat! Pow! I sank that boat!”

For lunch we would build a fire and open a can of pork and beans and stick it down in the coals next to the flames, turning it until all sides began to bubble. Meanwhile out came the inevitable picnic viands: Canned Vienna sausages, Underwood deviled ham, Saltine crackers, and cold hardboiled eggs with salt and pepper for dipping. Then, after stuffing ourselves, we would lie back on the cushion of pine needles and watch the clouds and the leisurely circling of black buzzards high, high in the sky.
We always went to Blitchton to get our Christmas tree, evergreen boughs and mistletoe. On the particular Sunday in December that I’m telling about we made our usual trek to find a tree — which was never a quick process, since we would find several candidates scattered through the woods, perhaps half a mile or more apart, and debate their merits, and then travel back and forth between them to refresh our memories before finally cutting one down. Along the way my father would skillfully use his shotgun to bring clumps of mistletoe down from high up in an oak tree without damaging the berried cluster, and my mother would supervise the cutting of the choicest boughs of wild holly.
Daddy had no fear of directing his automobile off across fields and woods unmarked by roads or trails – just as he had astonished my mother when they were first married. He knew the land so well that he was (usually) able to avoid tree stumps and boulders even in tall grass.

On that December Sunday we made a point to get home with our Christmas tree in time not to miss our favorite evening radio programs -- but only just in time. When I ran to the brown Gothic arch of the Philco and turned it on and turned the dial to the right number, we heard these words:
“We are interrupting our regular programming to bring you the latest news on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.”
Mother and Daddy looked shocked as I never seen them before, hurrying to stare at the radio at close range, but my only reaction was dismay that the unbelievable, the unthinkable had happened: A Sunday night without Charley McCarthy and Edgar Bergen’s dialogue with Mortimer Snerd! What possibly could be more important than that — or Allen’s Alley, with Mrs. Nussbaum, or the riotous opening of Fibber Magee’s closet, or Jack Benny trading gibes with rasping Rochester?
My parents’ efforts to explain the situation to a seven-year-old — much less to a four-year-old and a two-year-old — were futile. I was no more aware that a war had already started in Europe two years before than I was that I had been born in the depths of the Great Depression. I was beginning second grade, and the only links I had with Far Eastern affairs were picture books of “Children of the World,” in which young Japanese ran merrily about in kimonos, flying their dragon kites above cherry blossoms. But now that young Japanese were flying airplanes above American warships, the connection with the picture books was not obvious.

So began the Second World War for the Blitch family. My understanding of what it was all about did not really begin until considerably after it had ended when I was in the sixth or seventh grade. In fact I did not understand what it was really about until I was in college and beyond.
During the war years, which approximately spanned my sojourn at J. J. Finley Elementary School from first through sixth grade, I was impacted mainly by the incessant propaganda, the rationing, the collection drives, the air raid drills, and the radio war news to which my father attended religiously.
The construction of our new home would have been thwarted, but Mr. McLain told my parents that he could go ahead and build it with materials already on hand . . . though ours would be one of the last two houses he could build until after the war.
After Pearl Harbor it was impossible to get through a day without seeing posters of bucktoothed Japanese in thick glasses brandishing knives dripping blood from their blades. Franklin Roosevelt having achieved his goal of getting the United States into a war against Germany, the Japanese were joined by fanged Hitlers and Mussolinis waving handfuls of bombs, and evil-eyed German soldiers whose oversized boots marched across carpets of bloody women and children. I was most impressed by a poster of a giant octopus with three heads — Tojo, Hitler, and Mussolini. Its tentacles stretched around the world, threatening even the peace-loving United States.

Washington and Hollywood lost no time reinforcing the lessons as to who was good and who was evil. The demonic triumvirate of Tojo, Hitler, and Mussolini was balanced by the Twentieth Century’s leading saints -- Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and jovial Uncle Joe Stalin.
We children collected newspapers, crushed tin cans flat, made balls of the tinfoil wrappers of chewing gum and candy, and marshaled other items of questionable value to a military effort. We even put dented pots and pans in a bin on the courthouse square, where a poster showed a child looking up at an American bomber flying overhead and saying, “Look, Mom, there goes our frying pan!”
After I joined the Cub Scouts there was a contest to see which Cub could collect the most newspapers for the war effort and win a prize. The Den Mother exhorted us to patriotic action even though she was unable to explain how the newspapers would be used in the war. In addition to confiscating all the newsprint that came into our own house, I pestered the neighbors with an atypical display of aggressiveness,. Eventually I had a small mountain of papers stacked in our garage, and I easily won the prize . . . which turned out to be a Hershey Bar. My own disappointment was exceeded by my father’s outrage.
“A five cent Hershey Bar?” he said. “A Hershey bar for all the work?”
He was still upset about it forty years later, and would occasionally retell the story, with a rueful grin and shake of his head.

Next door to us, on the opposite side from the Hills, now lived the Fields family, whose house had been built soon after ours. Mrs. Fields, her son Peter (about my age), and her cute daughter-in-law, Patty, who was pregnant, lived there, while Colonel Fields and Patty’s husband were off at war. Colonel Fields came back with war souvenirs from Europe, some of which he gave to me: A large swastika flag from the schoolhouse at Aachen, its wooly material punctured by shrapnel and bullet holes. A German helmet with a man’s name and the city, “Munchen,” written on the leather lining with a pen. A heavy leather belt with “Gott mit uns” on the big buckle.
Rationing meant coupons for gas and tires and sugar and I don’t know what else. Butter was replaced by white blocks of margarine that came with little packets of yellow color that had to be kneaded into the lardlike glop. (I actually enjoyed doing that job for Mother, briefly.) We saw a lot of Velveeta and little cheddar -- cheddar and Philadelphia cream cheese being the two forms of cheese to which we’d been accustomed, along with the little glasses of Kraft spreads, pickle-pimento and pineapple.

We learned the word, “hoarding,” a bad thing. It was also unpatriotic to use your car any more than you absolutely had to. “Is this trip necessary?” Daddy had always been an excruciatingly slow driver, but now he drove slower than ever to save gas and wear. The rare thirty or forty mile drive to Blitchton or Ocala seemed to take hours, aggravated by the attitudes of other drivers who did not think that thirty-five miles an hour on the highway was appropriate even in wartime. Of course the roads were all two lane, and we would have accumulated a caravan of several automobiles by the time we came around a curve with a long, straight view ahead and the people behind us could finally sail past.
“Darn yankees!” my father would invariably say as they started around. “Get down here after driving in those mountains and think they can go seventy miles an hour.”
It mattered not (except to me, who kept score and listed it as one of those things I didn’t like about my father) that the license plates on the passing cars usually turned out to be from Florida or Georgia; the commentary on cursed yankees remained the same.

After my food-loving grandmother in Ocala (my mother’s mother) taught me to make fudge, I saved rationed sugar by not putting it in my iced tea until I had saved enough for a batch of candy. As for meat, we suffered no deprivation as many people did, because we had the cornucopia of Blitchton with its uninterrupted supply of chicken, beef, pork, and lamb. For awhile my parents rented a freezer locker to accommodate the Blitchton bounty. We would take a side of beef or a pig which had been slaughtered at the farm to be cut into steaks and roasts and stored it in the freezer room.
A visit to our freezer locker was a treat. We would enter through a massively thick wooden door and instantly be at the North Pole. When the big door boomed shut, a shiver of terror augmented the shivers of cold. What if it wouldn’t open? What if it stuck? What if somebody locked it from outside? We would go to our locker, put white-wrapped packages into our basket, and hurry back out into the suddenly incredibly hot, moisture-heavy Florida air. Later my parents bought a deep freeze, like a refrigerator on its side, in order to store the meat at home in the breakfast nook.
It was in the short, windowless hall between our home’s entrance hall and den that we huddled during air raid drills. A siren would disturb the night, and the citizenry were supposed to turn off all lights except in a light-proofed inner room. Air raid wardens would move through the dark streets blowing whistles at any moving object, and knocking on doors if there were any leakage of light. In our downstairs hallway, where the telephone (on a shelf in the wall) and the oil furnace alcove were located, we could close the door at each end and safely leave the light on without fear of alerting air raid wardens or German pilots.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Art Caged by Life

This fascinating article, “Even in a Virtual World, ‘Stuff’ Matters”, is a discussion of ways in which people who have become residents of “Second Life” have slavishly imitated the consumerism and personal vanities of real life (“RL” to the initiated) rather than creating a truly brave new world. The emphasis of the article is on the mass craving for conspicuous consumption, and for spending money on things which are necessary in RL but completely unnecessary in Second Life (“SL”). It's a good study in human nature.

In short, most people are as depressing and unimaginative in SL as in RL because they’ve ignored an opportunity to break the bonds of social customs and pressures, not to mention gravity. It’s like what a spiritualist said to me about people’s spirits in the afterlife: “If they’ve been nasty here, they’re not suddenly going to become nice on the Other Side.” I hope that if we do design our own Heavens I don't keep running into other people's malls and wig shops as I do in SL.

The first thing that struck me along that line, when I’d been in SL only a few days, was the fact that much SL architecture imitates RL architecture even though the laws of SL physics provide much more freedom than those of RL.


Things will stay where they are placed, whether above, on, or under the surface of the SL earth. SL structures, therefore, do not need the supporting, load-bearing elements used in the real world. . . and yet most SL structures are redundantly burdened with all the foundations, pilings, columns, and braces which have challenged RL architects for centuries.


Likewise, a door or other object in SL can be made “phantom”, meaning that one can simply walk through it like a ghost, and yet all the paraphernalia of house doors that have to be opened and closed are encountered throughout SL. True, a phantom door can’t be locked, but most people don’t lock doors in SL anyway. Stairs are generally unnecessary in SL because one can simply float up, and yet stairways abound in SL even though they are often difficult to negotiate.


Everyone can fly, soar, and hover in SL, and yet helicopters and other aircraft are not uncommon. The climate is (as far as I know) pleasant short-sleeve weather all the time, with never a drop of rain and no insects, and yet windows are covered with “glass”, and some of the clothing would make an Eskimo keel over onto the Arctic ice from heat prostration.

It’s hard to say whether people who enter SL and want things done in exactly the same way they are done in RL are simply victims of habit, and inability to think outside the box, or whether the socially conditioned worry about seeming “different” keeps them in bondage in both worlds.

When I told my neighbor in SL – who has created a lush, lavish South Seas paradise on the slopes leading up from the sea, complete with lava-bubbling volcano – my criticisms of obeying RL physics when designing SL buildings, he disagreed with me. I said I felt the way Frank Lloyd Wright had felt about the use of Greco-Roman columns which held nothing up. My neighbor said he didn’t feel comfortable unless a structure looked as it would look in RL. The hotel he built could be a Florida Ramada Inn. A residence which mostly hovered beyond the edge of a cliff would drive him crazy, even though the view would be superb and the design would be free of unsightly pilings and struts. He has an imaginative tropical bar built around the steep peak of a mountain, but all the braces are there “to hold it up”.

The bird, freed from its cage, refuses to fly.

Sunday, September 2, 2007


When the Source first stirred the primordial soup, and Is folded back on itself to know itself – and there were two points where there had been a single point, creating space, and then the expanding, evolving plenitude of visions – it must have felt as I do in 'Second Life' when I stretch out my arm and materialize a sphere, make it rise into the air and float, expand it, turn it into stone and place it on a wall I’ve made.

Creation growing from imagination seems to me the most godlike activity of humans. The author who fantasizes people and places which he later holds in his hand as his book, a woman painting colors on canvas to portray her night’s dream, Mozart pouring out as sound the product of his genius, an architect seeing his incorporeal images move from mind to lines on paper to a breathtaking gleaming building, a computer programmer watching his fancied world coming into colorful being on a screen . . . those are people echoing the nature of God.

A person who follows a recipe to make a cake, or a carpenter who obeys a construction plan build a shed, are somewhat removed from that godlike activity but are nevertheless creating, while the person who merely amasses money, or whose ego feeds on humiliating or tormenting others, is far removed from the divinity of creation.

What about human imagination which does not go beyond an individual’s subjective experience – for example the self-proclaimed writer who always has a novel in progress but never writes anything? I’m sure there’s going to be disagreement about this, but I think that merely dreaming without more is not the equivalent of bringing a dream into some tangible form. We creatures and our surroundings may exist only in God’s dream, but for us the dream is obviously a reality, as much as the Taj Mahal is a reality which rose from an architect’s dream.

There are probably no humans more often accused of “wasting time” than those with imaginations reflective of God’s who are in the process of creation. It is difficult for some parents and teachers to realize that staring out the window at rain, or going for long aimless walks, are essential parts of creating the Taj Mahal or the Ring of the Nibelungen or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

My time spent creating and transforming objects in a computer world, and making more and more elaborate forms and structures from them, is undoubtedly a complete waste of time by some standards, but to me it is a thrill, an elation, because I feel in my experience the echo of God’s unbounded creativity. Yes, from an objective point of view it is a step below bringing a poem or a painting into the real life human world, but as a personal experience it is gratifying and exciting to see the fruits of my imagination grow in a visible computer world.

It occurs to me that there is one way in which my Second Life creation might satisfy the clods who always want practical results. Some presumably enlightened people tell us that we create our own heaven, that what we experience in an afterlife beyond this plane is fashioned entirely by our own desires and imaginings from a vast reservoir of possibilities. If so, then ‘Second Life’, with all its possibilities for realizing fantasies, is an excellent training ground for our creation of our next life. What could be more frightening to most of us than to bear the sole responsibility for deciding what we want to be and to experience? What a multitude of questions flood our thoughts when we accept that we are personally responsible for designing our future life! A little orientation and practice in ‘Second Life’ can’t hurt.

Friday, August 31, 2007



My first years of school flow in a river of muddled memories on whose surface occasionally float clearer recollections of playground activities, friends, enemies, and information recited by teachers and occasionally absorbed. Among the things I discovered early were that I could not sing, that I was not good at outdoor games, and that I did not like school generally.

To me, with rare exceptions, J. J. Finley School was a brick prison which kept me from the sweet safety of mother and my own room and back yard. That feeling grew, along with severe shyness and fearfulness, as I was compelled to be in contact with increasingly larger and bolder children. For whatever reason — sometimes I blame my father’s negative attitude toward the world, sometimes genetics, and, more recently, former lives — I felt completely vulnerable and defenseless. Seen from outside, my body looked normally firm and healthy, if skinny, but from inside I saw it as weak and vulnerable as a paper kite. For some reason I was sent into the world like a conch without its shell. Add to that an unusually extreme fear of being hurt, and you have the perfect recipe for flight rather than fight.

Despite my father’s exhortations, “Don’t let other boys push you around,” or, “If anybody hits you, you hit back,” it never occurred to me that I could overcome even the scrawniest male who might challenge me. I was also confused by the contradiction of my father’s words by what I was taught in the Sunday School he made me attend: Blessed are the meek; if someone hits you, turn the other cheek; if someone forces you to walk with him, walk further; if someone takes from you, give him more. I believed everything I was told, especially when the news was direct from God, and I was being told exact opposites by my earthly and heavenly fathers. It was easier to obey God than my father.

I was almost as afraid of hurtful words as of physical knocks.

“He’s too sensitive,” became the polite label applied by sympathetic adults.

In the classroom, with a grown woman up front to protect and reward me, just as Mother had at home, I was quick to put up my hand to answer questions and say clever things. All too quick. My hand kept bobbing up over the other children’s heads like a cork over waves. The classroom was my schoolday sanctuary, while the school playground was my nightmare.

My timidity came to painful focus in the games we were required to play during recess. As long as the games had been infantile — like the musical chairs, ring around the rosy, bean bags, or drop the handkerchief, that we played, laughing and squealing, in kindergarten and first grade — I was all right. But when the games progressed through dodge ball and Red Rover and became competitive team sports, my mind dissolved in dread and my body turned into an awkward assemblage of sticks just barely held together with flimsy thread instead of muscle. My lack of physical confidence, my anxiety about pain, and my conviction that I could not stand up to other boys ran amok on the playground.

The archetypical misery was “kick soccer” — a derivative of baseball played by kicking a soccer ball instead of hitting a baseball. I stand there on a chilly day at the vital point of the diamond to which the ball will be rolled by the pitcher, with the lines from first and third base converging on me like sharp spears. Bare knees cold in the winter wind, brown leather shoes dusty, I wait beneath naked oaks and shivering pines for the desperate moment when the ball will arrive at my feet. Everyone is looking at me without hope, without encouragement, despite a shout or two of, “Come on, Fleming!” or “Try to kick it this time!” The boy on my team who is waiting at third base looks despondent, while the fielders from the other team move closer in. I picture the disaster before it occurs. My foot connects feebly. The ball rolls gently to first base, and the usual groans go up as, once again “out”, I shuffle back to the sidelines.

It isn’t surprising that when two captains were choosing their teams for any sport I was always the last chosen, and there would even be arguments over who was going to be so unlucky as to have take me into his squad. Since I did not want to be on any team, it would have been more than fine with me sit under a tree and watch, but teachers were there to be sure that no inmate escaped recreation.

At J. J. Finley, part of the tactics in most team games was to keep Fleming from fumbling or otherwise dealing catastrophically with balls, even if it meant one of my teammates racing over out of position and grabbing a fly ball that should have been mine. In that way I had less and less opportunity to learn to correct my mistakes, and so I soon gave up and despised all athletics, salving my humiliation with the belief that people who excelled in sports were a lower life form than myself. I learned early to scorn boys who did physical things well which I could not do, the classic sadism of lowering others to make oneself feel higher.

But in spite of my misgivings, kick soccer evolved into softball, and then into baseball, and -- like a monstrous giant looming higher and higher over the horizon – tackle football. You’d think I might at least have endured basketball in a better spirit, since the opportunities for getting slammed to the ground or hit by hard objects were relatively limited, but I particularly hated basketball because it was so repetitive and because somebody was always leaping up and down in front of me waving his arms in my face. My lifelong dislike of basketball also stemmed from its being almost a body contact sport but not quite -- involving all kinds of fidgety and unnerving almost-touchings. When some kid wiggled in front me waving his hands in my face I just wanted shove him out of the way, not take part in a ridiculous ghost-dance.

I think that in retrospect I exaggerate my childhood dislike and fear of sports, even if I don’t exaggerate my lack of confidence. I actually enjoyed friendly games of vacant lot football, although it was embarrassing to be outplayed by Marjorie Gratz, who became a nun, and to be known more for dropping passes than for catching them. This in spite of my father (who had been a high school coach for every sport that there was, and who had introduced me very early to throwing and catching a baseball and football) having pronounced that I was very well coordinated and showed real talent for pitching a ball. I think that was true, and not just a biased expression of fatherly hope, because eventually I did well in tennis and golf.

Which leads to the suspicion that not only does my memory make the playground picture bleaker than it was, but more importantly that my real problem was entirely of the mind and not the body. My terror at the prospect of being hurt by a fist or a fast-flying baseball was not based on an abnormal sensitivity to pain. My pain threshold is actually higher than average. I was just convinced that pain was intolerable and in some indefinable way a major catastrophe. My propensity to kick and throw balls in the wrong direction, even to members of the wrong team, came as much from fear of criticism as from a conviction of my own ineptitude. Even shouts of encouragement from my own teammates had unnerving overtones, pregnant with the noise of disappointment that would rise up following my failure. I was so occupied with worrying about my poor performance that I went beyond predicting my own incompetence, thereby bringing it about, to losing all focus on the game itself.

Children seem to have an instinct to kill the weak, or, as a substitute, to stab them with recriminations. Bullies like Red Smith (can you guess the color of his hair?) scented scrumptious prey in my timid form. Luckily, bullying at J. J. Finley rarely progressed beyond a little pushing and shoving to the circling, lunging contests between the handful of brutish louts who had nothing better to do than pick fights with one another. Red Smith, Kenneth Celon, and Donald Askew were the worst, while Peeler Norton, a strong, decent, blond boy from the country who was always chosen first for every team, occasionally joined in. Donald Askew, small and wiry, foulmouthed and mean, bit John Springstead on the nose during a fight, and years later I read with gratification that the repulsive Askew was serving a long term in the state penitentiary.

Red Smith was the only one who picked on me with any regularity. One time it backfired when he elbowed me in the ribs while we were waiting in line outside the school building, and I instinctively returned the push and bounced the back of his no doubt exceptionally thick skull against the brick wall. To my astonishment this ogre of my nightmares began crying loudly. I had experienced an actual triumph in battle! But a teacher hurried over and scolded me and would not listen to an explanation. I was too elated to mind the unfair accusation at the time.

(A similar false accusation came when another child pushed me while we were in the cafeteria line. I pushed back and got blamed for attacking an innocent. Ever since those incidents I have had an extreme angry reaction to being falsely accused.)

The day that I thumped Red Smith’s head against the red bricks the word went around that he would be waiting “to get” me after school by the bicycle rack. My bravado evaporated. In the security of the classroom, my mind would not go beyond the horror that awaited me out there on the hard, dusty ground. I stayed in the school building after the final bell rang. It never occurred to me that I might have had another victory. I imagined Red Smith – miraculously expanded to the size of a mountain gorilla -- out there by the steel bars of the bicycle rack, pacing, fists clenched, anger-crimsoned face bright with freckles like hot sparks, surrounded by a bloodthirsty audience of 11-year-olds that would not leave until the inevitable slaughter had been accomplished.

But I knew that Red Smith was a bus child, and that the last school bus left at 3:30. We had two categories of pupils in Gainesville in the 1940's: “Bus children,” who lived out in the country and came to town on big yellow school buses, and the rest of us, who lived in town and had our own transportation, even if it were only feet. The bus children were almost always much poorer than the town children, sometimes wore overalls to school, sometimes brought only a cucumber for lunch, and were allowed to leave school briefly during harvest times.

So, knowing that Red Smith was a bus child, I hung around in our classroom after the others had left, finding reasons to talk to the teacher, watching the clock out in the hall, making myself inconspicuous, until finally the last bus had left. Even then not sure of safety, I slipped out a side door and made my way home in a roundabout way, suffering pangs about my cowardice.

Although I never talked to my parents about any such problems, as if I were ashamed or feared the consequences — criticism from my father because I had not defended myself — the next morning, remembering how I had to stay home from school when I had chicken pox, I pretended to be sick at my stomach, and by the time I returned to school after skipping a day Red Smith had lost his head of steam, and his limited brain was occupied with something other than me.

And so my fearfulness led to my discovery of the lovely effectiveness of lies. “I’m sick,” became the talisman which enabled me to escape from school and bullies and baseball, as well as arithmetic tests for which I wasn’t prepared. I think I was unwittingly helped in the evasion of school by my father, whose severe mother had forced him to go to the Blitchton schoolhouse even on days when he was truly ill. Daddy was therefore susceptible to my finely rendered simulations of sickness. In my portrayals of “not feeling good” I showed a natural talent for acting which for some reason I never thought of exploiting except to avoid going to school.

Another significant point in my development of strategies for coping with life came on a certain day when some older boy who liked scaring smaller kids was chasing me across the school grounds. He tackled me, and as we rolled across the crackling leaves I said something funny. Just as he was ready to lock an arm around my neck, I made him start laughing. The assailant was disarmed, haw-hawing. Laughing, we got up, the chase was forgotten, and my lesson was learned: I could turn away wrath with humor.

An extension of that was: If people like you, they will not hurt you. Do not
offend. Do not challenge. Be friendly. Be funny. “If everybody likes me, I’ll be safe.” Believe me, it works.

But the only truly solid safety in those days meant being at home with my mother. For some reason it developed very early that I was afraid of my father and uneasy about any conversation with him, although I realized after I grew up that he was a kind and well-meaning man. When I could manage to stay at home on a week day I waited with tense eagerness for Daddy finally to leave for work. It seemed to take forever for him to finish getting dressed, have his coffee and his corn flakes, and go through unexpected delays and his predictable complaining. I stayed out of his way, but the weight of his presence bore down on me so that I could hardly breathe as he grumbled about this and that, and proclaimed the martyrdom he would suffer at his office. When at last I heard the sound of the car pulling out of the driveway, the heavens opened, sunlight poured through the clouds, and I was comfortable and happy.

That may not be a fair or realistic picture of my father, but those were my feelings. I remember my young mother, at the other extreme, as good-humored, pleasant, and indulgent. The bright house, freed of the dark paternal cloud, smelled of vanilla and furniture polish and cookies baking. There were no bullies, no teachers scratching inexplicable number-pictures on blackboards, no balls hurtling at me — just everything as it was intended to be, as it had been in the beginning before there was school, before there were brothers.

When I was able to stay home on a school day I could play in my room, build things with Tinker Toys, set up battlefields with metal soldiers, apply crayons to a coloring book, connect puzzle dots with a pencil, or run my electric train. I could have Campbell’s soup and bologna sandwiches with Mother at noon, and glory in the peace of it all.

Later on any day when I played sick, when it was too late to hustle me off to school I might say I was “feeling better” (unless I was planning to be sick for two days), and I would go outside, affecting weakness, and watch beetles laboring through the grass, or position a magnifying glass over a dry sweetgum leaf and watch a magical wisp of smoke rise from the blinding dot of the focused sun, and then the smoldering pinpoint expand into a black-rimmed hole. I could expand the hole by working around its rim, or I could burn a narrow path right across the leaf and see it fall in half. Of course it was not long before I discovered that I could bring my death ray to bear on an ant and make it sizzle. I would never have done such a thing to a beetle or a worm, but ants seemed fair prey, maybe because they had bitten me quite a few times before it occurred to me to fry them.

My sadism toward ants seems especially strange since I was extremely tenderhearted toward all other living creatures. My parents said that they had to give away the dog they had when I was a toddler because I was so frightened for him when he went into the street. When Mother showed us how to tie a thread to a June bug’s leg and hold it tethered as it flew buzzing around our heads, all I could do was worry about the bug’s distress. When we children used to catch lightning bugs on summer nights (there were so many, many more then than now) and put them into jars with perforated lids and carry those living lanterns through the darkness, I was unhappy for fear that a lightning bug might die.

In one of those flashes of insight which stays with one, I wondered one summer night why I felt it was fine for me to capture fireflies, but very worrying to watch others doing the same thing. Enlightenment came: I knew that I would be careful with my captives and set them safely free, but I was not sure that the other children would be so kind. Somehow that seemed a bright revelation.

Unfortunately I could not stay home every day during the school year, but as a providential counterbalance to misery on the playground, I learned to read. That changed my life entirely, as if God had only then unveiled the full happy potential my personal universe. At first there was no special thrill in making out the pronunciation (our teachers used “phonics”), and what we read was definitely uninspiring: “See Dick run. See Jane Run. See Spot run. Who has the ball? Jane has the ball.”

We were restricted to that uneventful level of literature for months, and I thought, “If this is all there is to read, what’s the point?” The watery pabulum we read wasn’t nearly as exciting or funny as the stories my mother had read aloud to me. There were no thrills or laughs — just children who ran too much, were obsessed with balls, and whose items of clothing and their colors were of inordinate interest to the author. I complained vaguely to the teacher, struggling to grasp what was wrong, “Nothing ever happens.”

In another of those insights that I’ll always remember, well before I might have tossed reading into my mental trashcan along with sports and arithmetic, I woke up to the obvious fact that books had to exist which embodied those stories Mother had read to me. With the help of an understanding teacher, I went to the Finley school library and was introduced to books beyond my official reading level. Suddenly I discovered excitement, suspense, humor – even if only in the mild struggles of children and talking animals. From that moment I would withdraw from the world mentally as well as physically. I was entranced. I could not stop reading. I read at school, when I got home from school, when lying in bed at night (“Just one more page, please. . .”), and while pulling on my socks in the morning. My concerned parents began to try to put limits on my reading and force me to go outside the house and play with other children.

For many years I looked back approvingly on this reading frenzy — which continued right on through high school — as a sign of my exceptional intellect and general superiority over school’s athletic heroes. Only much later did I begin to question whether living in a world of books is a wholesome substitute for direct perception of the universe. But meanwhile, I read and read and read, and laughed out loud, cried if an animal died, shivered with fear, or rejoiced in relief, as I devoured “just one more page” under the bedsheet with the help of a flashlight.

What did I read in those early school years? My favorite was Frank Baum’s Oz series, best known for the Wizard of Oz. Guided to some extent by teachers and by my parents’ and grandparents’ memories of what they had enjoyed, I read all of the Hardy Boys books, the Bobbsy Twins books, 'Tom Sawyer', 'Huckleberry Finn', 'Penrod', 'Little Women', 'Little Men', 'Dr. Doolittle', 'The Arabian Nights', everything Jules Verne wrote, and eventually everything Edgar Rice Burroughs ever dreamed up, and scores more.

'Myths Every Child Should Know', which was given to me for Christmas one year, made a tremendous impression, especially the story of Pegasus and the tales of humans who entertained gods without knowing it -- when, for example, the humble but generous peasant couple found themselves with a pitcher of milk which was never empty.

Books about mistreated animals featured prominently in literature which was thought suitable for young people. 'Beautiful Joe' was a dog who had his ears cut off by a wicked owner. 'Black Beauty' had a wagon full of equine problems, and there was plenty of stimulation for the tear glands in 'My Friend Flicka', and 'Thunderhead'. While I managed to make my way through 'Alice in Wonderland', for some reason I had problems with 'Treasure Island' and started it twice before I finally finished it several years later. In other cases I just did not like trying to translate dialect, and so even though I had enjoyed 'Uncle Remus' when my mother read me the stories (she tells me she hated struggling with the dialect herself), I had a hard time appreciating it on my own. On the other hand, 'Green Pastures', a 19th Century Southern black preacher’s telling of Old Testament stories, made me howl with laughter as much as any book I’ve ever read.

Even now I feel elation and a glowing, intoxicating nostalgia as I write the names of those books. What wonderful hours I spent under many skies far from my Florida sky, in distant fields and forests, among many different fathers, different mothers, different friends . . . and a multitude of enemies, not one of whom could actually hurt me. My extraordinarily vivid and detailed imagination made those fictional worlds more intensely vivid than anything in the world to which I woke up each morning.

The greatest family event of that time was the building of our new home. In the beginning was The Lot. Although it seemed remote at that time, in fact it was no more than half a mile northwest of J. J. Finley School and our rented house (which was only a block or two west of the school). The lot faced north on Fletcher Terrace (later Northwest Third Place), a block-long street surfaced with crushed lime rock hidden under a thick bed of pine needles, two lanes divided by grassy islands planted with palms. It was in a heavily wooded and sparsely populated area, felt by my parents to be safely beyond an expansion of Gainesville even though it was only two or three blocks from the University of Florida football stadium, which was on the other side of University Avenue to the south. There were three other houses on the street at the time. Retired Senator Hill and his wife lived beyond a vacant lot to the west, while the Dowdells and the Coopers had adjacent homes facing ours. The rear of our lot merged into thick woods of several acres in whose recesses was a shallow stream.

We would walk around our quarter of an acre and Daddy would lovingly identify every tree that grew on the property — oak, pine, sweet gum, redbud, dogwood, ironwood, wild cherry. The lot had been selected as much for its trees as for any other reason. My parents loved plants and passed that love on to their children — one of their best gifts to me.

We went as a family to see Roscoe McLain, the contractor. He would spread out his big blueprints and I would stare at the mystic patterns of white lines on the blue background and try to transform them into the image of a house which did not yet exist. My parents largely designed the house themselves, and Mr. McLain provided the necessary details and supervised construction.

Houses were built more slowly in the 1940s days than now, maybe because there was a less prefabrication and more care. After the foundation was poured and cured, the fireplace and chimney began to take shape under the canopy of trees, and then the brick walls, and finally the whole house was there — two stories of white-painted brick in the colonial style facing north.


A few steps brought one to the front door, which was crowned by a small ornamental portico. Turning right from the entrance hall, walking over gleaming hardwood floors, we would pass through the dining room to the kitchen and breakfast nook and a door to the back yard. To the left from the entrance hall we would enter the livingroom, the only single storied area of the home, and from there, looking out on the back yard, the sun room. Between the sun room and the kitchen was a wood-paneled den with built-in bookshelves above cabinets making up one wall. On second floor, split from front to back by a hall with a bathroom at the end, were the bedrooms and a storage room.

That was where I lived until I graduated from college. My room on the southeast corner -- with one window looking out over the trees and shrubs of the back yard and the woods beyond, the other looking to sunrises over the livingroom roof – became my castle tower from which I looked out over the beautiful, ominous world while my books took me to other lands, other universes.